The Coverage of Parapsychology in Introductory Psychology Textbooks: 1990-2002

Article excerpt


Content analysis of 3 samples of introductory psychology textbooks published in the 1980s (N= 64), in the 1990s (N= 32), and for fall 2002 (N= 57) revealed changes in coverage of ESP and parapsychology Sixty-three percent of the 1980s sample, 54% of the 1990s sample, and 58% of the 2002 sample discussed ESP or parapsychology as a specific topic. The nature of this coverage varied over time. Authors during the 1980s focused on Rhine's Zener card research. During the 1990s, there was increased emphasis on ganzfeld research and Honorton's claim to have developed a replicable experiment. Textbooks in 2002 focused on skeptical themes, noting failures to replicate ganzfeld studies and criticizing parapsychological research. In general, the 2002 coverage of parapsychology was inadequate because there was no discussion of nonganzfeld experiments except when referring to fraud and methodological inadequacy.


Content analysis of introductory psychology texts provides insights into academic attitudes toward parapsychology. This study compares findings derived from analyses of introductory texts from three time periods: 1980-1989, 1990-1999, and 2000-2002. Findings reveal changing patterns in the information that introductory psychology students learn about ESP and parapsychology.

The typical introductory psychology student believes in, and is likely to have experienced, ostensible psychic phenomena. More than half of the general public and about two thirds of U.S. college students believe in ESP (Clarke, 1991; McClenon, 1994). The majority of people in the United States report anomalous experiences such as apparitions, ESP, precognitive dreams, and "contacts with the dead" (McClenon, 1994; Messer & Griggs, 1989). Although the majority of scientists teaching at U.S. colleges or universities reported they believed ESP to be a "fact" or a "likely possibility," psychologists and elite scientists tended to be more skeptical than other scientists (McClenon, 1982, 1984; Wagner & Monnet, 1979).

Because of the prevalence of paranormal belief and experience, we would expect most introductory psychology textbooks to discuss this topic. A sample of instructors of psychology classes evaluated "ESP" as 30th in importance among 158 topics pertaining to consciousness and 173rd among 286 topics pertaining to "sensation and perception" (Landrum, 1993).

Previous surveys of the discussion of parapsychology in psychology textbooks include Rogo (1980), Lamal (1989), Roig, Icochea, and Cuzzucoli (1991), and Cormack (1991). Rogo's (1980) survey concluded that the treatment of parapsychology by authors of introductory textbooks in the 1970s was poor. Lamal (1989) surveyed 28 introductory psychology textbooks published between 1984 and 1988 and reported that only 8 texts (29%) included some coverage of parapsychology. He described neither the quantity nor the quality of treatment of the field in these texts. A larger review of 64 texts published between 1980 and 1989 revealed that 43 (67%) provided some discussion of parapsychology (Roig et al., 1991). The marked discrepancy between these results led Roig et al. to reanalyze the 28 texts surveyed by Lamal. They found that 14 of the textbooks (50%) actually included some coverage of the topic, 6 more than reported by Lamal. Cormack (1991) reviewed 4 textbooks published between 1989 and 1990 for their degree of skept icism toward controversial subjects, including ESP, and found that 3 out of the 4 textbooks provided some coverage. Cormack later examined 6 additional introductory textbooks and revealed that 3 of them also provided coverage of ESP. Thus, based on his data, we can conclude that 60% of Cormack's relatively small sample provided some coverage of parapsychology.

Roig et al. (1991) considered the quality of coverage given to parapsychology and concluded that textbook coverage was overreliant on secondary sources, generally cursory, and unrepresentative of parapsychological research. …