by Charles T. Tart
Department of Psychology
University of California, Davis
Davis, California 95616
1984, Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research
Published in the
Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research,
1984, vol 78, pp. 133-143.
Unacknowledged fears of Psi can create unconsciously motivated
behaviors that inhibit and/or distort the operation of
Psi in the laboratory. Observations
suggest that unacknowledged fear of Psi is widespread among
parapsychologists, as well as others.
The ingenious approaches of K.
Batcheldor and J. Isaacs for producing Psi may be
effective because they bypass fears of Psi, but have long-term
limitations through not dealing directly with it. A social masking
theory of Psi inhibition and a primal conflict theory of Psi
inhibition are discussed, and 10 strategies for dealing with this
fear are presented.
Denial, avoidance of triggering
circumstances, rationalization/distraction, and
dissociation/repression strategies all have inherent
psychopathological aspects. Desensitization and bypass defenses have
healthy as well as psychopathological aspects.
learning adaptive coping skills, accepting responsibility, and
personal growth strategies are the most desirable ways of handling
the problem of the fear of Psi.
For some years, I and many colleagues (see e.g., Batcheldor, 1966;
Eisenbud, 1963, 1970, 1972, 1979, 1982; LeShan, 1966; Pearce, 1973,
1974; Rogo, 1977) have been concerned with the issue of conscious
fears we may have of Psi phenomena and with the effects which these
fears, particularly when unacknowledged, have on research.
Thus I was quite intrigued by the
emphasis on fear of Psi and consequent resistance to Psi in the two
preceding papers in this Journal by Kenneth Batcheldor (1984) and
Julian Isaacs (1984).
Batcheldor has consistently emphasized the problem of resistance to
Psi and provided a number of useful ideas for setting up
experimental conditions that will affect mood in such a way that
fear may be bypassed. Too, his emphasis that it is the 'belief" of
the moment, rather than long-term personality characteristics, that
are liable to be important in determining whether Psi phenomena
manifest, is particularly valuable. The consistently low magnitude
of correlations of long-term personality traits with Psi performance
should long ago have convinced us that these factors are of little
practical importance in dealing with Psi.
Isaacs has taken a number of Batcheldor's ideas and combined them
with his own to broaden their application beyond the sitter-group
His initial results in producing
apparent psychokinetic effects in the laboratory suggest the value
of this approach. In this paper, however, I am going to focus not on
Batcheldor's and Isaacs' contributions, despite their great value,
but on what they left out of their approach. I shall overemphasize
my points, without doing full justice to the sophistication of their
arguments, because I think these points need to be made very
The basic thrust of my theory - that we
parapsychologists, as well as other people, have a lot of
unacknowledged fear of Psi - requires strong emphasis to
even begin to get past the unconscious resistance we have to these
Manipulation versus Collaboration
Before dealing with the issue of fear of Psi per se, I want to point
out that there is a psychological element running through the
current presentations of Batcheldor's and Isaacs' approaches that
complicates the fear and resistance problem, and so must be dealt
They implicitly follow the dominant
psychological and parapsychological research tradition of passive
subjects who are manipulated by a knowledgeable experimenter in
order to produce effects. As I have argued at length (Tart, 1977),
this "colonial paradigm" in which passive subjects are manipulated
for the benefit of others is a major drawback in both experimental
psychology and experimental parapsychology.
Participants in experiments are not
passive; they are active problem solvers, using their intelligence
to hypothesize the real purpose of the experiment, this hypothesis
being subject to their own beliefs, knowledge, personality
characteristics, and needs. Feelings of being manipulated, even if
it is a "benign" manipulation intended to make them feel better, can
have unconscious reactive effects.
These effects are highly variable and,
being generally unacknowledged, can greatly increase random error
variance and introduce systematic effects quite contrary to the
intentions of the experimenter. I have discussed this at greater
length elsewhere (Tart, 1977), and an excellent comprehensive review
has been made by Silverman (1977).
I would suggest that both Batcheldor' s and Isaacs' approaches could
be modified toward the humanistic direction I have proposed as an
alternative model (Tart, 1977).
In that approach we do not experiment on
"subjects," we work with "colleagues" and "collaborators" in a
situation that does not involve manipulation or deceit. Ideally,
there is total openness and honesty between "experimenters" and
The needs of people in all roles in the
experiment should be considered so that everyone learns something
and, we hope, experiences personal growth as a result of
participating in the experiment. This collaboration model of an
honest, shared endeavor among colleagues of equal status should
greatly reduce the reactive effects of the standard "colonial
This result is highly desirable in and
of itself, and it also simplifies attempts to deal with fear and
resistance: Who would honestly reveal their fears to someone whom
they suspect is manipulating them'?
Now let me turn to the more important issue of dealing with fear.
FEAR OF PSI
I believe, both from observation of others and observations of
myself, that there is a widespread and unacknowledged fear of Psi
among people in general, as well as among parapsychologists.
I have recently formalized some of my
understanding of this fear in the form of a social masking theory of
the inhibition of Psi functioning and a primal conflict theory of
the inhibition of Psi functioning (Tart, 1982).
Briefly, the social masking theory recognizes the fact that our
implicit social contract often calls for not really understanding
It is as if we had contracted,
"I'll support your illusions if
you'll support mine."
By "illusions" I mean the incorrect
perception of our true motivations and feelings because we
attend to a more acceptable fantasy in order to avoid seeing
unacceptable aspects of our true self.
Persons might consciously believe, for
example, that they are sympathetic listeners, when they are actually
driven by an unconscious, unacceptable fear of feeling inferior and
being rejected: Thus identifying with the myth or illusion of being
a sympathetic listener simultaneously avoids the unpleasant feelings
of fear of rejection and subtly obligates others to accept the
person because he or she acts like a sympathetic listener.
Some of the functioning of ordinary
social work depends on manipulation and deceit, sometimes of oneself
as well as of others. Psi, insofar as it is seen as an unknown way
of gathering information that may not have any limits, that may be
uncontrollable, is highly threatening. Thus there is a fear of Psi
as something which would shatter our and others' illusions and rob
us of the social power that comes from effective control of our own
and others' illusions.
Consequently we are enculturated in ways
that deny the existence of Psi, or restrict it to special areas of
life so that it does not occur in ordinary social processes.
The primal conflict theory of Psi inhibition hypothesizes that
mothers and their babies have a natural, emotional telepathic bond
which probably begins before birth and certainly is very strong
after birth and through the first few years of life. Because of
social pressures, particularly in contemporary society, mothers feel
totally responsible for the psychological health and welfare of
their infants, and they are expected to want to care for their
infants at all times.
Real mothers, of course, often have
negative feelings about their infants, but because of social (and
internalized) pressure they try to hide them. They may succeed on an
overt level, telling their infant or child that, for example, they
are only punishing them for their own good.
This may extend to repression on the
mother's part of her negative feelings.
Since it is essential for the child to accept the mother's overt
picture of the way she feels and the consensus reality of society
represented by the mother, an enormous conflict can be induced if a
telepathic channel gives information denying the overt (and vital)
I hypothesize that a general suppression
of Psi faculties is carried out by the infant or child in order to
deal with this primal conflict, so that only the overt message is
received and the immediate conflict seems to disappear. In the adult
who has long ago gone through this primal process, there is an
unconscious linkage between the existence of Psi and extremely
painful, negative experiences with the mother.
Aside from any fearful qualities of Psi
per se, great fear is associated with it because of these painful
childhood conflicts. Psychodynamically this results in a denial of
the existence of Psi and/or other surface defenses against Psi
functioning. We will consider these defenses later. (For a more
extended discussion of these two theories, see Tart, 1982.)
Batcheldor and Isaacs acknowledge various fears of Psi far more
explicitly than most parapsychologists, and this is an excellent
start on dealing with it. Judging from their procedures, however,
instead of dealing directly with this fear they bypass it. That is,
they work up ways to try to make the participants in their
experiments feel better about themselves and/or not notice the fears
of Psi that they have.
I'm sure this approach is effective to some degree and may account
for the apparent high level manifestations of Psi in both of these
It is quite consistent with my two
theories about inhibition of Psi functioning that this
approach should produce short-term results, but, from psychodynamic
considerations in the above theories, I do not think that bypassing
the issue of fear will be successful in the long run. I shall devote
the rest of this paper to a consideration of some of the strategies
that can be used for dealing with fear of Psi.
I hope that these suggestions will lead
to appropriate research.
I shall outline 10 general methods of dealing with fear. I have
probably overlooked some other ways.
Of these 10, four are predominantly
negative and psychopathological in the sense that they exact a high
psychological price in terms of wholeness and unconscious
complications and reactions. Four are quite positive ways of dealing
with fear that lead to personal growth, and two are mixed, having
both psychopathological and growth aspects.
My assessment of what is psychopathological and what is
psychologically healthy in the following discussion of defense and
coping strategies is based on a humanistic and transpersonal ideal.
Briefly, a healthy, growing person has full and undistorted reality
contact with the outside world, restricted only by the inherent
limits of humanness, and full understanding of and conscious
responsibility for his or her mental functioning.
Psychopathology, by contrast,
involves strong distortion of one's perception of external reality
and of other persons, and distorted and incomplete under- standing
of one's mental processes, frequently accompanied by substitution of
emotionally invested fantasies for realities.
Real people live on a continuum between
these extremes, and psychological growth is movement toward the
A major way of dealing with the fear of Psi is to deny that Psi
exists. After all, if there is no Psi, there is nothing to be
afraid of, so one has no fear to acknowledge.
When someone claims to be making objective, factual statements
about a subject, but behaves in a way that suggests there are
strong emotions operating, it is generally a good psychological
bet to suspect there are unconscious processes involved.
The vehement denial of the existence
of Psi, as in the case of some pseudo-critics whose behavior
suggests they are protecting their "faith" against heresy,
strongly suggests that fear of Psi is quite strong in them at an
unconscious level. Insofar as Psi is an aspect of reality, its
denial is inherently psychopathological.
A variation of the denial defense is to admit that Psi exists,
but to deny that one has any fear of Psi.
The statement that 'I am not afraid
of Psi" may be correct for some people, but I suspect that for
many people, since they have not actually dealt with the fear of
Psi to begin with, a denial of having any fear of Psi is simply
a defense mechanism.
Avoidance of Triggering
A common way of avoiding experiencing fear of something is to
avoid getting oneself into situations where that fear is liable
to be triggered. If one fears dark alleys, for example, one
doesn't go into dark alleys. Perhaps one doesn't even get close
to dark alleys!
This is a way of manipulating
oneself, consciously, semiconsciously, or unconsciously, to
avoid the triggering of fear. If the fear is strong this
avoidance has to actively circumscribe behavior, as one cannot
depend passively on circumstances not triggering one's fear.
I believe the phenomena I have called the "religion of
the .05 level" (Tart, 1980) is
an example of this style of defense among parapsychologists.
Briefly, I have noticed that when an experiment produces Psi
results that are trivial in terms of their actual magnitude, but
statistically significant at the .05 level, there is usually
very little criticism of the experiment from fellow
The existence of the mystery (Psi)
has been reaffirmed by an intellectual abstraction (statistical
significance test), but the actual level of manifestation is so
trivial that it does not evoke an emotional response. The
occasional Psi results that involve obvious high level Psi
functioning usually provoke strong criticism from some
parapsychologists, a far more intense focus on possible
methodological flaws than is applied to studies that are merely
significant at the .05 level.
Such a bombardment of multiple
criticism has the psychological effect of denying the reality of
the high level manifestation of Psi.
It is a manipulation of oneself to
get away from the triggering circumstance, the apparent high
level manifestation of Psi, which is beginning to trigger fear.
When a feeling of fear begins to manifest, alternative mental
processes may drain off all the energy so that the fear is not
An active process of rationalizing
feelings about Psi so that Psi seems to be something pleasant or
good, and/or an active indulgence in a related process that
effectively distracts one's attention from the circumstances
that are triggering the fear, can allow one to avoid facing the
The many metaphysical and
philosophical systems, for example, that say that Psi comes from
a "higher level" and so is inherently good, can serve as a sort
of rationalization defense, whether or not there is any truth in
An obsessive focus on technical and
methodological aspects of Psi experimentation can similarly
distract one from implications of Psi that might trigger a fear
A fourth pathological method of dealing with fear of Psi is to
dissociate Psi functioning from one's conscious self.
To small degrees this can be done by
giving the credit for Psi abilities to a "system," such as Tarot
cards, a Ouija board, "radionic" devices, or the like.
"It's not me; I'm just
a channel for something
else; I'm just reading the cards."
The full-blown form of the
dissociated defense can occur with the development of a trance
personality, which clearly takes responsibility away from the
individual showing the Psi.
This eliminates the problem of what
Batcheldor called "ownership resistance."
Insofar as there is total amnesia
for the doings of the trance personality, Psi is put at a great
distance from one's conscious personality, thus avoiding
triggering fears and conflicts about Psi. Conflicts about
possible "craziness" may have to be handled, of course, but some
people may find this easier than dealing directly with Psi per
Note that I am showing how dissociation/repression may be used
as a form of defense against fears of Psi, not commenting on
whether or not there may be genuinely synchronistic events
involved in acts like Tarot card reading (Tart, 1981) or
the possible reality, in some cases, of spirit guides.
Desensitization is the first way of dealing with fear that has
both positive and negative long-term qualities.
Desensitization defenses consist of
repeated exposures to the circumstances triggering one's fear
until the initial shock wears off and one becomes largely
habituated. The process often includes starting with low levels
of the fear-producing stimulus and progressively increasing its
intensity as one adapts.
This is a mental toughening that may
be quite effective.
Insofar as it strengthens one's
conscious ability to handle the fear without actually dealing
with the causes of the fear, however, it may allow other
unconscious defenses against Psi to continue to operate and
distort Psi functioning.
This is the sort of defense strategy that Batcheldor's and
Isaacs' papers ingeniously use, namely, setting up external
situations, with consequent effects on one's internal
psychological processes, such that one manages to bypass the
problem of fear and still make some Psi manifest.
For example, using a target system
that is prone to many artifacts, such as happens when many hands
are upon a table, may allow a genuine Psi response to come out,
but since the table movement could be dismissed as an artifact,
this allows one to avoid a direct confrontation with fear of Psi.
This is similar to
Another way of carrying out an end run defense is to give the
experimenter great authority (something experimenters often
like) and to believe that the experimenter's manipulations
(personal actions and environmental control) are responsible for
the Psi. The authority relationships common in the colonial
paradigms, insofar as they mesh with needs to have some
authority take control of responsibilities in areas where
'subjects" are fearful, may work out very well in the short run.
Like the earlier defense strategies,
however, the bypass defense is inherently psychopathological,
even though useful in the short run, because it abrogates one's
own responsibility and distorts self-knowledge about what is
really going on.
Here we consider the first of four positive ways of dealing with
fear in general, as well as with fear of Psi specifically.
In this coping strategy one fully
accepts the fear and experiences it, not just on an intellectual
level but on an emotional level. One has to be fully able to
experience and acknowledge that one personally fears various
aspects of Psi. This may have some adaptive effects in and of
itself. Many specific fears are magnified by a fear of being
This can vanish with full
This cognitive and affective
acknowledgement is a necessary basis for the following three
positive coping techniques.
Learning Adaptive Coping Skills
Having acknowledged fear of Psi, one begins to try to deal with
specific aspects of the fear, trying different ways of handling
it and seeing what seems to be successful.
It involves, of course, a certain
tolerance for fear such that one can mentally or behaviorally
try various coping techniques while experiencing the fear. It is
comparable to learning gun safety. To a person who knows nothing
about handling guns, a hunting rifle is indeed dangerous.
To a person who has been trained to
always treat the gun as if it were loaded and never take any
chances, some fear may remain but fear is largely replaced by
adaptive coping skills.
This adaptive coping strategy, based on a cognitive and
affective acknowledgement of the fear of Psi, involves a step in
personal growth in which one recognizes the negative sides of
one's nature. It may be possible, for example, to use Psi
abilities to injure someone.
Whereas people without much
psychological insight might believe that they would never do
such a thing, a mature person would recognize that in the right
mood they could not only use Psi abilities to injure someone,
they could enjoy doing that, feel justified in it. Having
recognized that aspect of themselves, they could then cope by
further accepting the fact that they are responsible for the
consequences of their actions and could choose to consciously
use Psi to injure others, but be consciously responsible for
what they have done, or consciously choose not to use Psi
Psychologically speaking, denial of
one's negative side generally leads to disguised forms of
aggression which may be considerably nastier than conscious,
This acceptance of one's negativity
and a conscious decision not to use it is a more adaptive coping
strategy than denial.
In general, the more psychologically mature a person
becomes, the less a problem should exist with fear of Psi.
In the course of discovering and
accepting one's negative side and, what is often harder for
people in our culture, in discovering and accepting one's
positive side, one becomes more self-accepting and less fearful
in general. This kind of psychological growth will have involved
a great deal of adaptive dealing with fears of all sorts, and so
dealing specifically with fear of Psi is less of a problem.
Psychologically mature people have
dealt with fear in a constructive way before, and so they have
confidence that they can do so again.
One of the great discoveries of modern psychology is that
unconscious processes exist and that they cannot be
effectively handled by pretending that they are not there.
I believe that unconscious fear of Psi
is very strong among parapsychologists, as well as people in
general. This unacknowledged fear is a primary reason for the
generally trivial manifestation of Psi in our laboratories, and it
will continue to stifle progress in our field until it is
acknowledged and dealt with.
There may be real reasons for fearing
some aspects of Psi, such as potential military applications (Tart,
1978; 1979), but dealing effectively with such real problems will
not be possible if our unacknowledged personal fears are unresolved.
The usual scholarly discussion is oriented toward the reader's
This paper is also oriented toward your
emotions. It is not intended to insult the reader; since I have had
to deal with many of my own fears of Psi in the past, I am quite
Perhaps you have dealt with your own
fears of Psi or were lucky enough to have a developmental history
that didn't create any significant fears. Perhaps your personal
fears of Psi are so strong that you will simply forget the points of
this article or you will rationalize that since you have no
significant fears of Psi, you can dismiss this discussion as of
academic interest only, applying perhaps to other people.
I suggest that it would be more
profitable, both personally and for our field, if you would
seriously look for evidence that you have strong fears of Psi and
try to acknowledge and deal with such fears.
Research projects on others' fears of
Psi are fine, but probably will not get very far if we haven't first
examined our own fears.
1. This paper is partially based on
material presented at a symposium on the Batcheldor approach
held at the combined Twenty-Fifth Annual Convention of the
Parapsychological Association and the Centenary Conference of
the Society for Psychical Research at the University of
Cambridge, August 16-21, 1982.
2. My understanding of resistance to Psi has been aided by
comments from John Beloff, William Braud, Douglas Dean, Jan
Ehrenwald. Jule Eisenbud, C. A. Meier, Carroll Nash, Carl
Sargent, Gertrude Schmeidler, Berthold Schwarz, Ian Stevenson.
and Rhea White.
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