A new paper was just published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology that is further confirmation of something skeptics of the paranormal and alt med treatments have noticed for a long time. It’s called the “avowal of prior skepticism”. This is a narrative device used by a person telling a story in which they will announce their previous skepticism (“I used to be skeptical”) before relating a conversion story about a product or event. I see this all the time regarding paranormal investigators and in infomercials for products.
The ploy of stating prior skepticism makes the narrator look more credible and is intended to make the story more believable. That is, what I’m about to tell you even convinced ME so it must be true, believe me!
This framing was so common, I even included mention of it in my Master’s Thesis about the websites of amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs).
While known qualitatively, the study by Dr. Anna Stone is the first time that this effect of avowal of prior skepticism was tested and measured quantitatively using two experiments. The first experiment showed that the listener of a narrative regarding a potentially paranormal event (telepathy) was significantly more likely to judge the event as attributable to the paranormal cause rather than just coincidence when the narrator used the “skeptic” technique. By stating “I was skeptical of this at first”, followed by a description of an anomalous occurrence, then conversion to belief, the narrator produced a more convincing narrative to support their paranormal causation.
Why this would be so seems obvious. To say that you were skeptical (“doubting”), sets up assumption of a number of characteristics and qualities of the narrator:
- Highlights the strength of the evidence
- Portrays the narrator as a rational thinker and not normally gullible
- Establishes the narrator as a credible source and trustworthy
- Undermines alternative causal explanations and persuades the listener to accept the conclusion
- Anchors the story to real world thinking
- Creates a dramatic introduction
By assuming these (consciously or not), we are more likely to be convinced of the opinion of the narrator. Except… when we are warned this may happen.
In the second experiment, the audience was informed about this avowal technique. Just like when you read the questions to be answered before reading text, when you are primed to see what to look for, you SEE it. And it turns out that this avowal of prior skepticism backfired when the audience was on to it. The audience then saw this as a manipulative ploy to sway their acceptance of the article and were less likely to buy into the paranormal explanation – the opposite results from experiment 1.
What does this study tell us? As critical thinkers, it tell us to be aware that people will do certain things to try to convince you their story is true. They have a vested interest (no matter if they admit it or not) for you to buy their story. It tells us we are not necessarily wasting our time pointing out these ploys and logical fallacies.
Therefore, in your daily ramblings, TELL people about these, in a collegial way of course (DBAD*). Tell them about the trick “I used to be a skeptic”. Help them see right through it.
There were a number of other details I found very interesting but maybe not to the DN crowd in general so I’ll be writing more on this study over at my personal blog in the next few days.
You can read the study here.
Anna Stone is coauthor of this book available on Amazon.
Check it out. I think anomalistic psychology is the new and intriguing path to studying paranormal experiences. Really cool (and science-based) stuff.
*Don’t be a dick