Seeing Supernatural Forces

Researchers investigate what people believe and why

An illustration of vintage, black and white photo of a man with vibrant flower bouquet art coming out the top of his head.

Julie Exline, PhD, wants to better understand what makes people believe that some life events are the result of supernatural forces—including God, the spirits of dead relatives or destiny.

The Case Western Reserve professor of psychological sciences is leading a series of surveys and experiments to mine the subject. One asks people if they've had an experience they believe may have been caused by a supernatural entity and, if so, to describe it and the impact on their lives. Others focus on whether people see supernatural forces as influencing events such as hurricanes or life-changing occurrences. The project is funded by a $2.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

"Such attributions can affect how people interpret and cope with events in their lives," Exline said. "A person who sees something as supernaturally ordained or communicated could also engage in behaviors that could be very positive, such as philanthropy, or dangerous, such as acts of violence. … We are missing something important about people's explanations for events if we overlook the supernatural angle."

Consider people who dream of receiving a message from a deceased relative. Do they believe the relative was actually speaking to them, or do they attribute it to the subconscious at work? If the former, do they give the message greater psychological weight?

Exline and her team—which includes project co-leader Nick Stauner, PhD, and Joshua Wilt, PhD, both postdoctoral researchers, as well as faculty from other universities— will complete the work next year.

One thing already is clear: Many people hold two sets of beliefs at once—for example, that a hurricane is caused by both climate change and a supernatural force.

"A lot of people have a belief that natural and supernatural explanations can coexist," Exline said. "And if people believe that, they're going to be a lot more open to seeing the supernatural in the world."

—Julie H. Case