In spite of strong public expressions of skepticism from the scientific community, polls show that more than nine out of ten American adults profess belief in paranormal phenomena. Some scientists view this as a social problem, directing much blame (but little research) at a variety of sources including lack of critical thinking skills, fads, need for transcendent experiences, failure of the educational system, and cultural cycles. Social impact theory provides an alternative focus: it views paranormal beliefs as a natural consequence of social influence processes in interpersonal settings. In this study, subjects in a laboratory experiment were informed that some people believe pyramids harness a mysterious form of energy that preserves objects stored within them. They subsequently judged the relative freshness of fruit stored in a box and in a pyramid-shaped container. Although the judged stimuli essentially were identical, we observed that (1) subjects reported more "pyramid power" effects after hearing the credulous judgments of a confederate posing as a subject; (2) influence was heightened by a high-status confederate; (3) influence scarcely diminished when a prior subject's (i.e., an absent confederate's) judgments were reported to the subject by the experimenter; and (4) removing paranormal implications heightened the confederate's impact. Toour knowledge, this is the first experimental demonstration of the interpersonal transmission of paranormal beliefs and the first time that all three of social impact theory's "source" factors- strength, immediacy, and number- have been tested in a single controlled experimental setting.
Sociological Perspectives, Volume 44, Issue 1, Spring 2001, pages 21-44.