In times of stress, people may turn to the supernatural rather than to physical reality in attempts to solve various problems. This is occasionally true in the criminal justice system, especially when normal investigative processes have proven unsuccessful. There have, of course, been criminal cases in which “psychic” predictions have proven correct, or at least close enough to be relatively believable, but in other cases, the predictions of avowed psychics have simply proven to be wrong.

Do premonitions in the criminal justice system arise from unknown supernatural influences? Or are there more prosaic psychological sources of premonitions that would more readily account for the observed psychic failure rates?

As human beings, we tend to assume that our mental processes are rational and available to our conscious awareness. However, this is often not the case.

Maier (1931) conducted experiments on mental sets, essentially the habits of mind, with which people confront problem-solving. One of his problems, the “two-cord” problem, required the tying of two cords (strings) together, each suspended from the ceiling and too far apart to reach by hand. One obvious solution was to tie some sort of weight to one of the strings, turning it into a pendulum. You could swing it away, catch it on the back swing, and tie it to the other string.

The problem was that lots of people couldn’t figure this out.

So, in some of Maier’s experiments, an experimenter would “accidentally” brush against one of the strings and set it swinging so that people would get the idea. When the experimenters did this, many people suddenly had a kind of pendulum epiphany; they found something in the room that had the necessary weight, tied it to one of the strings, and solved the problem.

However, many of those who solved the problem in this manner did not remember the experimenter brushing against the string; their responses were triggered by an event of which they were consciously unaware.

We often operate “on automatic” in this manner. We turn left when we should have turned right simply because we’re used to turning left at a particular corner; we have a mental set, a habit of mind.

Another example: We know that, in most places, people get out of bed before they have breakfast. If they don’t, we may infer that they may be rich (their butlers may bring them breakfast in bed). If they’re poor, however, and their spouses brought them breakfast in bed today, we may infer that they’re probably sick. We have habits of mind, aka scripts (Schank and Abelson, 1977), by which we live our lives and by means of which we can answer questions we’ve never even considered before. We may never have consciously pondered the problem of who gets breakfast in bed or when they do so, but the relevant concepts are perfectly and immediately comprehensible to us. We understand these ideas perfectly at first sight, and we do all of this without direct, conscious volition.

This is possible because some aspects of complex cognition operate below the level of direct conscious awareness. Wallas (1926) identified the process of incubation as a frequent part of complex problem-solving. Complex problems are often solved after a period in which we allow them to “incubate,” a period in which we do not consciously work on the problems. The brain may apparently process relevant problem elements until a definable solution is obtained without our conscious awareness of the relevant underlying brain operations.

This is in no way supernatural; it is a basic function of the human nervous system, and it is well-documented in experimental psychology and in the history of scientific discovery. But how can this relate to premonitions?

We human beings, including those who have what they believe to be premonitions, are continually moving through the world. This, of course, exposes us to information. Much of that information presents itself to conscious awareness. Some does not, and following periods of incubation, we may experience illumination, a sudden awareness of the results of that non-conscious analysis.

This may feel like a psychic epiphany when, in fact, it is nothing more than a special case of pattern recognition, as processes below the level of active consciousness configure and reconfigure the stimulus elements we’ve seen into patterns of greater or lesser semantic cohesiveness, frequently with reference to the scripts by which we habitually operate. These patterns ultimately become accessible, in their final form, to consciousness. The elements of information we’ve seen over time converge in apparently meaningful coherence, and the resultant psychological product, a pattern composed of the relationship perceived in the configuration of those elements, appears to us as an epiphany, a premonition.

A brief caveat: It is, of course, not possible to demonstrate that true premonitions cannot exist. One cannot prove a negative, and there may very well be aspects of the universe we do not yet understand. George Washington would have been astonished by a radio; we might be similarly astonished at discoveries of currently unknown phenomena in the future.

Yet in the forensic world, as we know it today, “premonitions” are often wrong. They are sometimes spectacularly wrong in the course of criminal investigations. It is important to understand the psychological dynamics of such events, and typical premonitions, including the ones that are wildly inaccurate, require no supernatural explanations. The basic principles of psychology provide perfectly reasonable empirical explanations.

We have limited control of our futures. In stressful periods, such as those surrounding tragic crimes, the ability to predict those futures might prove to be very comforting, but such predictions have not proven to be reliable. Sadly, perhaps, we can explain many premonitions in purely psychological, non-prophetic terms. This perspective, unfortunately, offers no comfort, but it may have greater practical utility in the harsh real-world environment of crime and criminal justice.

References

Maier, N.R.F. 1931. Reasoning in Humans II. The Solution of a Problem and Its Appearance in Consciousness. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 12, 181-194.

Schank, R., & Abelson, R. 1977. Scripts, plans, goals, and understanding. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Wallas, G. 1926. The Art of Thought. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company.

QOSHE - Are There Really Psychic Detectives? - Matthew J. Sharps Ph.d
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Are There Really Psychic Detectives?

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02.04.2024

In times of stress, people may turn to the supernatural rather than to physical reality in attempts to solve various problems. This is occasionally true in the criminal justice system, especially when normal investigative processes have proven unsuccessful. There have, of course, been criminal cases in which “psychic” predictions have proven correct, or at least close enough to be relatively believable, but in other cases, the predictions of avowed psychics have simply proven to be wrong.

Do premonitions in the criminal justice system arise from unknown supernatural influences? Or are there more prosaic psychological sources of premonitions that would more readily account for the observed psychic failure rates?

As human beings, we tend to assume that our mental processes are rational and available to our conscious awareness. However, this is often not the case.

Maier (1931) conducted experiments on mental sets, essentially the habits of mind, with which people confront problem-solving. One of his problems, the “two-cord” problem, required the tying of two cords (strings) together, each suspended from the ceiling and too far apart to reach by hand. One obvious solution was to tie some sort of weight to one of the strings, turning it into a pendulum. You could swing it away, catch it on the back swing, and tie it to the other string.

The problem was that lots of people couldn’t figure this out.

So, in some of Maier’s experiments, an experimenter would “accidentally” brush against one of the strings and set it swinging so that people would get the idea. When the experimenters did this, many........

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