“At first I was skeptical” is a convincing ploy, unless you are wise to it

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.

How to Make a Paranormal Event Seem Believable – Pacific Standard: The Science of Society.

*Don’t be a dick

  14 comments for ““At first I was skeptical” is a convincing ploy, unless you are wise to it

  1. skeptictmac57
    May 30, 2014 at 7:28 PM

    This technique probably goes back centuries as a rhetorical device.The story of Doubting Thomas comes to mind. I am sure the scholars out there can go back further still…Bob…Eve?

  2. spookyparadigm
    May 30, 2014 at 7:43 PM

    1. I wonder if this is cross-cultural (is there mention in the article if these were the usual western college student test subjects?). There is a basic logic behind if of course. At the same time, this frame is very in keeping with the post-Enlightenment narrative of investigation overturning established truth, which became the mythic narrative of the progress-based 19th and 20th centuries in European-influenced worldviews. The skeptic who believes the extraordinary, an extraordinary that overturns the status quo, when confronted with evidence, is the hallmark of “long-19th century” narratives from scientific discoveries (think of how Darwin is typically portrayed, a man who wrestles with an earthshaking truth until forced into accepting it and acting) to horror, thriller, and detective fiction (the standard horror story is a discovery story, uncovering something that is out of place and must be dealt with. If supernatural, the nature of this thing has broad implications for how we view reality, otherwise it is a fantasy story).

    This break from tradition due to material experience is not necessarily universal. To get away from science or epistemology, check this out on science fiction tropes that are American, not quite as universal as we may think


    and if you think that cooked your noodle, try this (note: it discusses ghosts and witches and such, so doubleplusgood)


    Note the bit in the first one on how we love to break with tradition, rather than learn how to live with tradition. Someone bending their desires to a larger tradition is a defeat in our stories, but this is not universal. I’d argue the “I was a skeptic, until …” frame is the same thing, or at least related.

    I mention this both because it is generally important, and secondly because culture and the assumption of universal logic and values is a huge blindspot for a lot of psychology, especially when it hits the popular level. While I appreciate the quantitative nature of psychology, many of its studies tell you quite convincingly about the thought processes of above-average educated or education-scoring people, from post-industrial nations, when they are 18-25 years old, living in a less-than-real-world-environment, single, childless, etc. etc. etc.. As many readers may know, the subjects of many psychological experiments are WEIRD


    2. “I liked it so much, I bought the company!”

    3. All of that said, I have to imagine that in popular accounts, many of us would use the exact same narrative if we in fact did have what we believed to be solid evidence of extraordinary claims. In a scientific forum, this might not be very important, as the evidence would speak for itself. We might not say it in the exact same way, but we’d probably take some pains to point out we weren’t looking for the thing we discovered, or that we made sure to doubt ourselves until we had no other choice, etc. etc..

  3. Bob Blaskiewicz
    May 30, 2014 at 8:00 PM

    On it. 🙂

  4. Bob
    May 30, 2014 at 8:07 PM

    You’d think that there would be more versions of the story in the Bible… I’m thinking like Moses and the priests of pharaoh. But they don’t convert…St. Paul comes to mind. “I used to kill a lot of Christians, but then I had a horse riding accident, and now I can’t get me enough Jesus.”

  5. Eve
    May 30, 2014 at 9:20 PM

    In Genesis, God promises Abram and Sarai (who are both in their 90s) that Sarai will bear a son (then he renames them Abraham and Sarah). Sarah laughs at the idea that she will give birth to her first child at her advanced age. Nine months later, she gives birth to Isaac, which means “laughter.” In Gen 21:6, Sarah says, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”

    In fictional ghost stories, initial skepticism is a very common motif. If the protagonist of a ghost story immediately reacted to the first little noise by saying, “Yup, that’s a ghost,” the story would lack suspense, and the audience would probably roll their eyes at the implausibility of the story’s premise.

  6. Radzot
    May 30, 2014 at 10:35 PM

    To the list of narrator characteristics and qualities, I would add that the narrator is claiming a personal similarity between self and listener. “I was (just like you) a skeptic.” I remember an old study on relationship dynamics in which people liked someone better if they believed that the other person started by disliking them and then changed their mind. Apparently the opinion of someone who likes us right away is not as valued as that of someone who starts out “skeptical.” Maybe it’s a related issue.

  7. Rich
    May 31, 2014 at 5:57 AM

    This comment appeared on Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid article about oil pulling, and it’s textbook:

    “I am certinly someone who can eb categorized as a skeptic; the technique sounded ridiculous to me when I read about it. Embarassingly enough, however, I actually gave ti a try when i wa having a persistent knee ailment several years ago. It sounds goofy, I know, but the pain went away IMMEDIATELY! You’ll probably say, oh power of suggestion, but how come power of suggestion didn’t work on anything ELSE I tried & believed would work? So give it a try with any of your aches and pains–you will believe!”

    I was so fed up at seeing this obvious and feeble tactic, I said I frankly didn’t believe either she was a skeptic or that oil mouthwash cured her knee problems. But, as I think Dunning has said himelf, They Only Post Once, and I got not reply.

  8. George Taylor
    May 31, 2014 at 9:05 PM

    What I wonder is this: Who are these people who post one, and sometimes two, such comments and then vanish? What is their motivation? What do they gain?

    For that matter, what do any such people who post in support of the latest conspiracy theory have to gain by taking the time and effort to do so?

    The answer to that question escapes me, and yet I’m sure it would be fascinating. Do some people simply thrive on creating or amplifying chaos?

  9. Peter Robinson
    June 1, 2014 at 4:18 AM

    Not dissimilar to the way some people preface what they are about to say with “To be honest…..”, or “I like to call a spade a spade.” (For U.S. readers this refers to the implement, like a shovel, as opposed to a cracker expressing his or her prejudice!).

    When these expressions are used it is worth being on guard for exactly the opposite.

  10. Joni
    June 1, 2014 at 10:41 AM

    One could, on the other hand, say, “I usta be a believer…….”

  11. Rich
    June 2, 2014 at 7:03 AM

    I suspect the motivation for conspiracy posters is the same as for skeptics; putting a bit of the ‘truth’ as they see it out in public. Some truths have more quotation marks around them than others.

    As regards the likes of oil pulling and … well, any of the “I tried it and it worked!” areas, there must be some posters who think they’ve been through a genuine healing experience, but as there’s usually a Specialised Expensive Oil/Dowsing Kit/Rock/Water Filter to purchase somewhere, I imagine most are shills or sockpuppets seeding ‘evidence’ and ‘testimony.’

  12. Bill T.
    June 2, 2014 at 10:38 AM

    When I read that I have come to assume the opposite. I can’t recall once that the person demonstrated actual objective analysis.

  13. June 5, 2014 at 7:04 PM
  14. BobM
    June 12, 2014 at 12:18 AM

    When I was a boy and mixing with a lot of conservative christians I used to get “I used to be an atheist but….” – A lot :-).

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