This article is from the In-Depth Report Science of the Occult
60-Second Mind

Spooky Science: Does a Fear of Ghosts Help Keep Us Honest?

Does the fear of "someone watching" help put us on the straight and narrow path?


[Below is the original script. But a few changes may have been made during the recording of this audio podcast.]


Ghosts. We're drawn to them, yet they frighten us. I mean we feel better knowing one is not lurking. But do perceived specters have a real effect on our behavior?

A 2005 study published in Human Nature revealed what happens when students believe their surroundings are haunted.

127 students took a test, with one caveat: They had an opportunity to cheat. A "computer glitch" caused the correct answer to be displayed on-screen unless subjects immediately tapped the space bar, clearing the solution.

The experimental group was also told the lab was haunted and that scientists recently had seen the ghost of a dead grad student in the test room.

Turns out, the "haunted" group was less likely to cheat—hitting the space bar nearly 40 percent faster (and thus removing the opportunity to see the correct answer) than the control group.

The researchers wrote that fear of wraith wrath existed in hunter–gatherer days, rivaling adaptive fears such as those of snakes and spiders. They proposed that supernatural belief has value, preventing social deviance because we fear "someone may be watching.”

Maybe, but the idea that superstition has a social purpose, as opposed to merely being a by-product of consciousness, will require further study—and ultimately may never be scientifically provable.

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