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Students are enthralled with reports of the paranormal, so when psychologists in the classroom try to alter such beliefs, the students usually combat these efforts, says Richard Miller, PhD, of the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

The problem is that students learn the fact that paranormal occurrences resist systematic exploration, but the students don't embrace that idea personally. In an address titled "From hobbits to Hobbes: reducing students' beliefs in the paranormal" at APA's 2002 Annual Convention in Chicago, Miller identified strategies for helping students cast aside their previous beliefs and adopt a more critical stance.

"The assumption that students arrive with an open mind that can be easily swayed by the classroom experience is clearly not true," he stressed. They may retain their misconceptions "because paranormal beliefs help reduce uncertainty. These beliefs tend to rise in turbulent times."

Research illustrates that 99 percent of students believe in some aspect of the paranormal, noted Miller, such as subliminal perception, ESP, telepathy, psychic healing or astrology, and the number of students who are persuaded to abandon their beliefs in the paranormal is distressingly small.

While courses that emphasize critical thinking and research methodology can be useful in combating such beliefs, he said, presenting information to students isn't enough. Miller described educational interventions based on cognitive dissonance theory that can be critical in effecting attitudinal change in significant numbers of students.

Miller, with colleague William Wozniak, PhD, has investigated the role of counter-attitudinal advocacy in educating students about the paranormal. In this technique, the students assert a position in opposition to the one they actually hold, generating arguments against their own beliefs. The researchers found that the method significantly reduced the extent to which students accepted claims of the paranormal.

In their study, the researchers compared changes in student beliefs in the paranormal as a result of either writing counter-attitudinal essays, reading another student's arguments against the existence of subliminal perception or no exposure to such issues. When students generated arguments that contrasted with their beliefs, the degree of change toward current scientific belief was greatest. Simply reading an essay written by another student produced the least change--less even than the control group.

Miller and Wozniak then investigated whether the amount of energy students expended in their arguments, rather than self-generation of arguments, might have contributed to the change in beliefs about subliminal perception. They assigned students to groups that differed in the amount of work needed to complete a task. From most energy to least, students either closely summarized others' arguments, generated their own arguments or generally summarized a lecture about evidence against the power of subliminal perception.

The results revealed that energy alone was irrelevant in effecting change: Students in the highest energy expenditure group did not differ from students in the control group. The participants in the counter-attitudinal group showed a greater change in belief, as evidenced by their ratings about subliminal perception as the experiment ended.

In a follow-up study, the researchers provided evidence for long-lasting effects of the counter-attitudinal technique. When the bookstore on their campus conducted a survey about products to offer students, Miller and Wozniak asked the bookstore to include questions about whether to stock subliminal tapes, subsequently recording the responses of students in their classes. Students who generated arguments against their own initial beliefs expressed considerable reservations about buying the tapes themselves, compared to the other groups. Further, those who had engaged in counter-attitudinal behavior were significantly less likely to agree that subliminal tapes should appear on the bookstore shelves. Miller pointed out, though, that the approach has limits. It has maximal effect when students feel free choice in the assignment rather than if they feel forced to engage in it. When they perceive little or no choice, psychological reactance can emerge.

In addition, attitude change is greatest when students feel clearly responsible for the arguments they generate. Summarizing or evaluating others' arguments doesn't work, nor do group assignments where responsibility is shared among participants. A third caveat is that overexposure to a counter-attitudinal message may reduce the amount of change.

But Miller stressed that when students' arguments are grounded in the scientific approach and when they have to think critically about the message they are delivering, the development of counter-attitudinal arguments can provide a sound pedagogical tool.

Barney Beins, PhD, is APA's director of precollege and undergraduate programs.