When I say I'm interested in anomalistic psychology, more than a few people just tilt their head and look at me like oddly. I get it. It's a niche area of interest. I really don't help people to understand though when I toss up a word salad explanation because I haven't thought through how to explain it to someone without my underlying level of interest. This article is me trying to develop my own definition so that in the future when I'm asked my jumbled response will be the result of my usual social anxiety rather than a lack of prepared response.
My Attempt at a Definition
Anomalistic psychology (AP) is the study of the bizarre, the weird, and the creepy. Often the experiences that are investigated attract the label of paranormal, but don't be confused, AP is not parapsychology (I'll probably rant against parapsychology at a different time). A researcher who applies the label of AP to their work is signposting that they are exploring some esoteric stuff. However, they are also indicating that they are doing so from the orientation that the explanation will be embedded in known or knowable psychological and/or physical factors. AP researchers investigate phenomena such as telepathy, ghosts, telekinesis, paranormal healing, aura perception, and a whole host of other things that true scientists scoff at; they investigate the weird from the position that the most plausible explanation will be found in the mundane, not the supernatural.
If you look up anomalistic psychology on Wikipedia (at least as of today) you won't see any mention of 'conspiracy theories.' However, I disagree with this exclusion. Off the top of my head, I'm not aware of an academic paper that justifies 'conspiracy theories' having a place within AP, and I haven't yet prepared one myself. This is why I kept it out of the first paragraph. However, a quick Google search introduced me to Christopher Thresher Andrews. At a glance, his work seems to support my inclusion, but I'll revisit this topic at a later date to see if I can present a reasoned argument for my intuition.
I'll often be the pretentious guy who insists that anecdotes are well and good but prove anything, so bear with me. Maybe I know an unusual amount of people who "want to believe," and paranormal belief is being replaced by more rational discourse in the general populace across the globe. I just don't see enough evidence of that for me to agree. There's two people in my life who exemplify why I'm interested in AP. They're by no means the only believers I know, they're just the two that inspire my interest the most. While I don't anticipate anyone I know (apart from my long suffering wife, and one of my BFFs) will ever read any of this, out of respect I'm going to try and obscure the identities of these people as much as possible.
The first example is a mental health advocate with decades of experience. When it comes to applicable psychology, xe is a firm believer in research based practice. A lot of people still struggle to openly discuss mental health concerns, and xe is great at breaking down those barriers and discussing various related topics in a non-judgemental way. If it turns out xe is working from an outdated model, as soon as you can show xyr the up to date research, xe takes it on-board and adjusts xyr output. Yet, xe believes in psychics. To be fair, I haven't broached the subject in a long time, mainly because it never went anywhere productive. Maybe xe has changed xyr mind. But, previously xe believed that not only was it possible that people could intuit the future, but spirits are real and some people can talk to them. As an ex-believer in all sorts of unusual phenomena I try not to be too quick when casting aspersions. I readily admit that the me who believed those things was (bluntly) uneducated. I was naive. I wanted to believe. It wasn't until I finally critically engaged with the arguments both for and against my more out-there beliefs that I finally changed my thinking. This is why it intrigues me that despite having access to the same research, as well as the same ability to critical engage with the discourse, my friend still believes.
The subject of my second example is often dismissed by most people as either a troll or mentally ill. However, while xe definitely displays troll-like qualities, and I challenge anyone to point to someone who has never had a bad mental health day, I think xe is more complicated than either of those labels can accurately describe. The problem for a few of our mutual acquaintances is that xe is a conspiracy theory believer. Now the minute conspiracy theories are mentioned some people immediately switch off and assume it's all a load of bunk. However, I agree that because of things like the Watergate Scandal a reasonable level of scepticism concerning authority should be maintained. Where I think my friend takes it too far is when xe becomes convinced of the correctness of the narrative xyr has bought into despite reasoned and logical argument that demonstrates the flaws in xyr thinking. A mutual friend once tried to convince me that our conspiracy friend was suffering from schizophrenia. This is a label I find a lot of arm-chair psychologists like to attribute to anyone refusing to conform. This mutual frenemy had no formal training to support the validity of their argument; I'm not joking when I say that when I disagreed with them their defence was to insist that because their mother worked in mental-health (also not a clinical psychologist) that they knew what they were talking about (I feel the rage associated with unhelpful labels will inspire it's own article at some point). I only address this because despite disagreeing with this opinion, there is a lot of evidence to support a correlation between schizophrenia (and related conditions) and conspiracy theory belief. Maybe at the end of the day it will turn out that my friend is suffering from a condition that encourages xyr more non-conformist beliefs, and I'm simply too close to see it. However, that just feels too lazy. I haven't observed Xe displaying most of the other symptoms associated with schizophrenia, and at the end of the day, I'm also not a clinician. I estimate that xe is of slightly above average intelligence yet lives in a small community where xe is rarely intellectually challenged. Most of xyr intellectual stimulation comes from online echo chambers that reinforce xyr sloppy thinking. Xe does demonstrate the capacity for critical thinking and an understanding of day to day reality as experienced by the majority. Xe just likes to conclude that the reason reality isn't the way xe wants it to be is because They want to keep everyone under their control. Personally, I fail to see how that's any more clinically symptomatic than the belief that Satan is responsible for all the bad things that happen.
I had intended to write at least a paragraph summarising some of the AP papers that inspire me, but then the two anecdotes happened and I feel like I raised at least as many questions as I answered. I think it would be useful for me to devote an entire post to each topic I want to encourage people to get excited about. AP is a core passion, but I'm currently working on research for my master's thesis, research for one of my jobs, having a life, and trying to write for this site at least once a week. Unlike this article which was written without much planning, it will be awhile before I feel I have the time to do an AP research summary to the quality I would be happy with. Until then, watch the skies!
Not for anything weird. Just, the stars are pretty and stuff.