Locus of Control and its Relation to Skepticism, Pseudo-Skepticism, and Belief in the Paranormal: By Genevieve Reed


Skepticism takes an agnostic stance regarding the unknown, whereas pseudo-skepticism takes an atheist stance. The present study measured participants’ skepticism, pseudo-skepticism, and belief attitudes towards the paranormal, and measured the relationship with locus of control orientation. Questionnaires assessed both the belief orientation, and the locus of control orientation. The hypothesis stated that both pseudo-skeptics and believers would have external loci, and skeptics would have an internal loci. Results did not indicate any significant correlations between locus and belief orientations. However, results did indicate significant negative correlations between skepticism, pseudo-skepticism, and belief, suggesting that such views may correlate with personality traits.

People frequently express beliefs in the paranormal. Researchers indicate an increase in people’s interest in the paranormal, and define paranormal to include experiences which fall outside of rational scientific explanation. (McGarry & Newberry, 1981) Individuals often state that they “just know” that occurrences such as psychic phenomena occur. These people often describe, in enthusiastic detail, experiences which sound irrational and bizarre. On the other extreme, other individuals express an extreme denial of such phenomena, to the point that they will criticize and demean people who do believe in such things. Such individuals defend a staunch science-only attitude, choosing to deny anything which cannot be reproduced in an empirical manner (Kennedy, 2005). Regardless of what anyone may feel regarding the paranormal, current science lacks the ability to either prove or disprove such events. As a result, both believers and skeptics find themselves in a state of conviction regarding something which science cannot verify.

Researchers have conducted numerous studies to determine what correlations may exist between personality traits and belief in the paranormal. Specifically, researchers have measured participants’ internal/external locus of control tendency, and compared it to their belief or skepticism attitude regarding the paranormal. Most research has found that believers gravitate towards an external locus of control, and skeptics gravitate towards an internal locus of control. (McGarry & Newberry, 1981; Newby & Davis, 2004; Tobacyk & Milford, 1983.) Other findings have indicated that scores on the Meyers-Briggs personality inventory demonstrate certain correlations towards belief and skepticism. Kennedy (2005) suggested that skeptics desire more direct control over their experiences, which would also suggest a more internal locus of control.

Tobayck and Milford, (1983) conducted a study which first determined seven subcategories of paranormal phenomenon, and subsequently measured the correlations found between personality traits. The personality correlates included a measure of internal/external locus of control. Findings indicated that, as predicted, individuals with higher scores regarding paranormal beliefs also demonstrated a more external locus of control. Specifically, the subcategories which demonstrated significant findings included traditional religious belief, witchcraft (e.g., black magic and voodoo), and extraordinary life forms (e.g., Lock Ness and Big Foot). Although all of the subcategories showed positive correlations, only the three listed showed significance. Other subcategories such as precognition (the ability to foresee events before they occur) and spiritualism did not demonstrate any significant correlation with an external locus of control.

McGarry and Newberry (1981) took a slightly different approach in investigating the correlations between paranormal beliefs and internal/external locus of control. They measured a sample of students found to have low involvement in paranormal activities, and compared them to a sample of individuals more directly involved in paranormal activities. A psychic fair in the researchers’ area provided the sample of individuals with more involvement. As predicted, the student sample showed a positive correlation between belief and external locus of control, and the involved sample from the psychic fair showed a positive correlation between belief and internal locus of control. In this particular case, involvement correlated with locus of control. Participants’ beliefs alone did not demonstrate any correlations between locus of control, but their degree of initiative in personal interests did. This study may have been measuring participants’ involvement in their interests, and how it related to locus of control, instead of their belief tendencies.

Roe and Morgan (2002) stated that although correlations have previously been found between external locus of control and belief in the paranormal, other confounds may have interfered. They hypothesized that narcissism, instead, predicts belief in the paranormal. They felt that since narcissistic individuals are more prone to fantasy, then such fantasy tendencies would predict more beliefs in the paranormal. Although significant findings indicated that participants with greater narcissistic tendencies also demonstrated greater belief, testing measures may have created a confound. Questions which were geared towards the individual, (e.g., the participant affirms that he or she has psychic ability) were correlated with narcissism scores. Other questions which pertained to paranormal phenomenon, but did not deal directly with the activities of the participant, lacked the correlations with narcissism scores. The testing measures may have simply indicated narcissism, and not paranormal beliefs separate from the personal fantasies which narcissistic individuals demonstrate.

Newby and Davis (2004) also measured correlations found between locus of control and paranormal beliefs. They used Tobacyk’s Revised Paranormal Beliefs Scale, and included the New Age Philosophy and Traditional Paranormal Fears subcategories. As predicted, external locus of control correlated with paranormal beliefs.

Kennedy (2004) conducted a review of many studies regarding paranormal beliefs. He found that certain factors, such as scores on the Myers-Briggs personality typing correlated with belief patterns among participants. Individuals with an intuitive, feeling (NF) personality are likely to demonstrate paranormal beliefs. On the other hand, individuals with an intuitive, thinking (NT) personality, as well as those with sensing, thinking (ST) personalities tend to demonstrate skepticism, sometimes to an extreme degree, with regards to the paranormal.

Kennedy also speculated that NF individuals have a desire to transcend their day to day experience, and are therefore more likely to believe in something greater than and outside of themselves. This perspective correlates with an external locus of control. NT personalities, on the other hand, are frequently found among scientists, individuals who focus much of their energy on empirical research, and advocate a rational approach to their experience. They often display a high degree of self-efficacy, which corresponds to an internal locus of control. ST personalities are often found in positions of power, and frequently seek out materialistic goals. They have strong values which tend to be polar, and they prefer concrete to abstract thinking. They are frequently competitive and authoritarian. These behaviors also demonstrate an internal locus of control.

Kennedy (2004) describes these three personality types, NF, NT, and ST, as transcendent, scientific, and authoritarian, respectively. The three types often conflict with each other, although both scientific and authoritarian share the same skeptical attitude towards the paranormal. Both also demonstrate a desire to control, although the methods for manifesting this desire is very different. The scientist uses reason to solve problems, and applies his desire to control onto the research he or she performs. The authoritarian competes with others, and applies his or her desire to control over other individuals.

Although research supports the correlations found between external locus of control and belief in the paranormal, certain confounds have demonstrated differing results. For example, McGarry and Newberry found that belief did not correlate directly to locus of control. Involvement, on the other hand correlated with the results. Roe and Morgan (2002) found that narcissism correlated with paranormal beliefs, and that locus of control may not have actually been involved. Kennedy (2004) felt that personality types such as transcendent, authoritarian, and scientific, correlated with paranormal beliefs as well as locus of control orientation.

Truzzi (1987) stated that there are in fact two different kinds of skeptics. The actual skeptic takes an agnostic view regarding the paranormal. This individual would not affirm or deny a phenomenon, but simply state that he or she simply does not know. A skeptical attitude works well in a scientific environment, as it allows the scientist to experiment and discover something new which was previously unknown. Truzzi also describes the other kind of skeptic, the pseudo-skeptic. This individual takes an atheist view regarding the paranormal. He or she would simply deny the existence of anything which has not already been proved. In some ways this behavior follows similar patterns to the religious fanatic who insists his or her beliefs are real, regardless of empirical evidence. The distinction between these two is that the religious believer is making an unproven assertion, while the pseudo-skeptic is making an unproven denial. The actual skeptic remains considerate of an idea or hypothesis until it is either proved or disproved.

Previous research regarding the correlations between locus of control and belief versus skepticism regarding the paranormal have only provided participants with two options to choose from: either they believe in paranormal phenomenon, or they don’t. In addition, most studies have also excluded individuals who are actively involved in investigating the paranormal, with the exception of McGarry and Newberry (1981). If one views causality as external, he or she is more likely to make an absolute statement regarding that which has not been proven empirically. The individual would be less likely to experiment with things they cannot or have not confirmed. If one views causality as internal, he or she is more likely to experiment with an interest in the paranormal. If they cannot verify anything, they would remain undetermined about the paranormal. This would most likely encourage the individual to continue experimenting, instead of coming to a conclusion before proper evidence is obtained.

The hypothesis of the present study stated that individuals with an internal locus of control would be more likely to actively pursue their interests, and therefore more likely to consider the possibilities which could result from their choices. They would also demonstrate the true skeptic perspective. Individuals with an external locus of control would be more likely to be passive in their lives’ experiences, and more likely to perceive their experiences as having already been determined and they would demonstrate the pseudo-skeptic perspective.

Participants were given three statements to choose from regarding paranormal phenomenon. The first was an affirmative absolute statement regarding something impossible to prove, the second was a denial of such a phenomenon, and the third allowed the participant to state that although the phenomenon may be possible, there lacks the scientific evidence to back it up. Individuals with an internal locus of control should take the skeptic attitude that it is possible but not proved. Individuals with an external locus of control should either absolutely deny or affirm such a phenomenon.



Forty one students from Metropolitan State College participated in the study. Twenty three were from an upper division chemistry class, and eighteen were from an introductory psychology class. All eighteen psychology students received one credit for a class requirement for participation. The sample included 24 women and 17 men, with a mean age of 23.7 (SD=5.85).


Participants completed two 20 item questionnaires, along with a brief survey of demographic information. The first survey assessed the participants’ locus of control orientation (Ward, 1994) which included phrases such as “When I get what I want, it’s usually because I worked hard for it.” and “My life is determined by my own actions.” Participants scored one point for questions which indicated an internal locus of control, and zero points for questions which indicated an external locus of control.

The second survey assessed the participants’ skepticism orientation. The researcher derived 20 statements from McGarry and Newberry’s questionnaire (1981) which included phrases such as “Everyone has the potential ability to develop psychic powers.” and “It is possible for illnesses to be cured through psychic powers.” Each participant read a statement regarding a paranormal phenomenon, and then chose between three phrases: “This is certainly true”, “This is absolutely impossible”, and “This may or may not be true. More information is required to know for sure.” The demographic information included participants’ age, gender, ethnic background, and religiosity, as well as a question asking the participant why he or she had decided to participate in this particular study.


The researcher read instructions to the participants indicating that they would have two minutes to complete each survey, and read further instructions after each subsequent survey was completed. Participants completed the locus of control questionnaires first, followed by the paranormal beliefs questionnaire. The researcher instructed psychology class participants to place the completed questionnaires face down on the table in front of them as they were finished, and only begin the next one when instructed to do so. The chemistry students received less monitoring, completed the questionnaires at their own pace, and left when they were done. The completed surveys remained on the table until the participants left, when the researcher collected them. The entire study took ten minutes to complete.


The possible range for locus of control scores was 0-20. A high score indicated external locus of control. The actual range was 0-15. The possible range for belief, skeptic, and pseudo-skeptic scores was also 0-20. The actual range of belief scores was 0-16. The actual range of skeptic scores was 2-20. The obtained range of pseudo-skeptic scores was 0-18. Locus of control scores did not correlate significantly with skeptic, pseudo-skeptic, or belief scores. See Table I for correlation coefficients.


Data did not support the hypothesis that locus of control has any correlations with an individual’s locus of control orientation. Previous research was not supported either, in that individuals with a more external locus of control did not demonstrate a greater tendency to believe in paranormal phenomena.

A fairly high degree of internal validity was present in both student samples used. The sample of chemistry students received a slightly less structured environment in which to answer the questionnaires, in that some of them were departing for class as others were participating in the study. Overall, however, internal validity suffered very little compromise. All participants completed the questionnaires in a structured classroom environment.

The sample in the present study lowered external validity considerably, due to the fact that only college students participated. The locus of control scale results indicated a floor effect, which may have been due to the sample used. Future research efforts may improve the current study with a different sample, and different locus of control questions.

The present study did however indicate that participants demonstrate a high degree of consistency in choosing either skeptic, pseudo-skeptic, or belief views with regards to the paranormal. No previous research measured the potential differences between skeptic and pseudo-skeptic, so these differences may have acted as confounds in other studies.

The skeptic, pseudo-skeptic, and belief variables may in fact indicate personality traits among participants, which would explain the significant levels of negative correlations between each. Future research could measure personality traits, and their potential correlations between the skeptic, pseudo-skeptic, and belief perspectives. One possible measure could integrate the Transcendent, Scientific, and Authoritarian personalities Kennedy described (2004). These three types often express high degrees of condescension towards one another. (Kennedy, 2004.) Measures of acceptance and rejection towards skepticism, pseudo-skepticism, and belief attitudes could also demonstrate correlations between an individual’s personal orientation on such a scale.

Further research can now investigate correlations between an individual’s skepticism, pseudo-skepticism, and belief views, and determine what relationship other personality traits or psychological functions may have with an individual’s belief orientation.

Table I

Correlations Between Belief, Skepticism, and Pseudo-Skepticism Scores


Attitude & Demographic Data 1 2 3 4 5 6

1. Belief

r = — **-.464 **-.446 .192 *-.346 *-.314

p = — .002 .003 .230 .027 .046

2. Skepticism

r = — — **-.586 -.175 *.369 .084

p = — — .000 .274 .018 .602

3. Pseudo-skepticism

r = — — — .001 -.056 .202

p = — — — .994 .727 .205

4. Locus of Control

r = — — — — -.173 -.009

p = — — — — .280 .956

5. Age

r = — — — — — .204

p = — — — — — .200

6. Education Level — — — — — —


** indicates significance at alpha = .01 (two tailed)

* indicates significance at alpha = .05 (two tailed)


Kennedy, J. E. (2004). Personality and motivations to believe, misbelieve, and disbelieve in

paranormal phenomena. The Journal of Parapsychology, 69(2), 263-292.

McGarry, J.J. & Newberry, B. H. (1981). Beliefs in paranormal phenomena and locus of control:

a field study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(4), 725-736.

Newby, R. & Davis, J.B. (2004). Relationships between locus of control and paranormal beliefs.

Psychological Reports, 94, 1261-1266.

Roe, C.A. & Morgan, C.L. (2002). Narcissism and belief in the paranormal. Psychological

Reports, 90, 405-411.

Tobacyk, J. & Milford, G. (1983). Belief in paranormal phenomena: Assessment instrument

development and implications for personality functioning. Journal of Personality and

Social Psychology, 44(5), 1029-1037.

Truzzi, M. (1987). On pseudo-skepticism. Zetetic Scholar, 12-13. Retrieved February 4, 2008,

from /commentaries/pseudo.html

Ward, E. A. (1994). Construct validity of need for achievement and locus of control scales.

Educational and Psychological Measurements, 54(4), 983-992.


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