I’ve always been a sucker for a good mystery. As a kid, I devoured Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. I also enjoyed reading the Encyclopedia Brown books, but I never read the mystery’s solution buried in the back. My endings and solutions were always more entertaining than Encyclopedia Brown’s explanations. I also loved Scooby Doo – even though the ghost almost always wound up being old man Johnson who woulda gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids. In more recent years, I was a fan of the program Unsolved Mysteries, in spite of the fact that at least half the time Robert Stack would break in at the end saying “Update!” and sharing the outcome of the mystery. That always bummed me out, because the final outcome was always just a little bit of a disappointment. After all, when you have an unsolved mystery, there are endless possibilities as to what might have happened. When the mystery is solved, however, it always winds up feeling vaguely unsatisfactory and mundane. The ghost is old man Johnson in a sheet. The husband is the murderer because his wife didn’t ball up his socks properly. The orb is just dust. The “EVP” is your friend, burping.
It is the unsolved part of the mystery that draws me to the paranormal. We don’t know, and we can’t really know. For me, that’s the cool aspect of it. While they are few and far between, those truly unexplainable occurrences are what keep me going in the midst of dust orbs, whispers, and hours of sitting around with nothing happening. Turns out, there’s a psychological explanation for this.
Back when BF Skinner was doing his experiments with reinforcement and conditioning, he discovered something fascinating. Steady reinforcement and lack of reinforcement aren’t what drive conditioning most strongly. Instead, it is intermittent reinforcement that seems to take root deep in the human psyche, making us crave just one more. There doesn’t always have to be a treat at the end of the maze. As long as it is there some of the time, we’ll keep running through the maze in order to discover whether or not it is present. This is very likely why gambling leads so easily to addiction. Gambling is the ultimate intermittent reinforcement system. There’s just enough positive reinforcement to keep you going, but it isn’t so constant that you lose interest.
To me, that’s what paranormal investigation does, as well. If you’ve genuinely investigated the paranormal for more than five minutes, then you are aware that there are many times that absolutely nothing happens, everything is naturally explainable, and no credible evidence arises. If every investigation was always like that, I’m guessing that there wouldn’t be many paranormal investigators continuing to pursue the craft.
Likewise, if paranormal activity was as common as some would have you believe, and every time we rounded a corner we came face to face with a ghost, then the mystique of the paranormal would be gone. Ghosts would be commonplace. There would be nothing to investigate.
Instead, as paranormal investigators, what we get is Skinner’s infamous and addictive intermittent reinforcement. Sure, there are a lot of times when there’s not much going on. But then, there are those investigations when you see things, you hear things, and you may just capture that elusive piece of evidence that provides enough reinforcement to keep you going to the next. Ghosts, it seems, are aware of BF Skinner’s research, and they’re providing just enough intermittent reinforcement to keep us hanging on.
For me, then, paranormal investigation pulls me in both because I am apparently behaviorally compelled to do so via intermittent reinforcement, and because I love nothing more than an unsolved mystery. Perhaps if we solve the mystery of hauntings in our lifetime, then the paranormal will no longer hold any sway over me and I’ll be reduced to trying to discover the answers to other unsolved mysteries. Like what Bill Gates has against me that he keeps crashing all of my Microsoft software. Or how on earth that Reese’s peanut butter cup I ate this morning wound up without a drop of peanut butter in it. Because no matter what, where there’s a mystery, I’ll be there, curiously chasing the unexplained just for the fun of it.