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Another explanation of EVP

Nontrivial numbers of Americans believe in the paranormal. These beliefs have spawned thousands of groups dedicated to investigating paranormal phenomena and a proliferation of ghost-hunting entries in the reality television market. Anecdotal evidence even suggests that ghost-hunting reality shows have increased public openness to paranormal research, which usually entails a small group traipsing through reportedly haunted locales at night with various ghost-hunting technologies.

Audio recorders figure prominently in paranormal researchers’ toolkits. Microphones capture ambient sounds during the investigation. Later, the audio recordings are scoured in search of messages from spirits. The premise is that audio recording devices can register otherwise inaudible communications from discarnate entities.

These purported communications have been dubbed electronic voice phenomena (EVP). The sounds are generally brief – most examples consist of single words or short phrases. Perceived contents of EVP range from threatening (“You’re going to hell”) to bizarre (“Egypt Air”).
An EVP recorded at Lizzie Borden’s house.

Part of the attraction of the audio recorder for paranormal researchers is its apparent objectivity. How could a skeptic refute the authenticity of a spirit captured by an unbiased technical instrument? To the believers, EVP seem like incontrovertible evidence of communications from beyond. But recent research in my lab suggested that people don’t agree much about what, if anything, they hear in the EVP sounds – a result readily explained by the fallibility of human perception. Despite the technological trappings, EVP research bears several characteristics of pseudoscience.
What are the EVP sounds?

The chain of evidence for most purported EVP makes hoaxes difficult to rule out, but let’s assume that many of these sounds are not deliberate fraud. In some instances, alleged EVP are the voices of the investigators or interference from radio transmissions – problems that indicate shoddy data collection practices. Other research, however, has suggested that EVP have been captured under acoustically controlled circumstances in recording studios. What are the possible explanations for these sounds?

The critical leap in EVP research is the point at which odd sounds are interpreted as voices that communicate with intention. Paranormal investigators typically decode the content of EVP by arriving at consensus among themselves. EVP websites advise paranormal researchers to ask themselves, “Is it a voice…are you sure?” or to “Share results among fellow investigators and try to prevent investigator bias when reviewing data.” Therein lies a methodological difficulty.
Belief bias occurs when we make illogical conclusions in order to confirm our preexisting beliefs. Belief perseverance refers to our tendency to maintain a belief even after the evidence we used to form the belief is contradicted.

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