Region served Worldwide
|Formation 1882; 135 years ago (1882)|
Legal status Non-profit organisation
Location 1 Vernon Mews, West Kensington, London W14 0RL
Founders Frederic W. H. Myers, Edmund Gurney, Henry Sidgwick
Similar American Society for Psychical, Institute of Noetic Sciences, Committee for Skeptical, James Randi Educatio, The Skeptics Society
The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) is a non-profit organisation in the United Kingdom. Its stated purpose is to understand events and abilities commonly described as psychic or paranormal. It describes itself as the "first society to conduct organised scholarly research into human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models." It does not however, since its inception in 1882, hold any corporate opinions: SPR members assert a variety of beliefs with regard to the nature of the phenomena studied.
The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) originated from a discussion between journalist Edmund Rogers and the physicist William F. Barrett in autumn 1881. This led to a conference on the 5 and 6 January 1882 at the headquarters of the British National Association of Spiritualists which the foundation of the Society was proposed. The committee included Barrett, Rogers, Stainton Moses, Charles Massey, Edmund Gurney, Hensleigh Wedgwood and Frederic W. H. Myers. The SPR was formally constituted on the 20 February 1882 with philosopher Henry Sidgwick as its first president.
The SPR was the first organization of its kind in the world, its stated purpose being "to approach these varied problems without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less hotly debated."
Other early members included the chemist William Crookes, physicist Oliver Lodge, Nobel laureate Charles Richet and psychologist William James.
Members of the SPR initiated and organized the International Congresses of Physiological/Experimental psychology.
Areas of study included hypnotism, dissociation, thought-transference, mediumship, Reichenbach phenomena, apparitions and haunted houses and the physical phenomena associated with séances. The SPR were to introduce a number of neologisms which have entered the English language, such as 'telepathy', which was coined by Frederic Myers.
The Society is run by a President and a Council of twenty members, and is open to interested members of the public to join. The organisation is based at 49 Marloes Road, Kensington, London, with a library and office open to members, and with large book and archival holdings in Cambridge University Library, Cambridgeshire, England. It publishes the peer reviewed quarterly Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (JSPR), the irregular Proceedings and the magazine Paranormal Review. It holds an annual conference, regular lectures and two study days per year and supports the LEXSCIEN on-line library project.
Among the first important works was the two-volume publication in 1886, Phantasms of the Living, concerning telepathy and apparitions, co-authored by Gurney, Myers and Frank Podmore. This text, and subsequent research in this area, was received negatively by the scientific mainstream, though Gurney and Podmore provided a defense of the society's early work in this area in mainstream publications.
The SPR "devised methodological innovations such as randomized study designs" and conducted "the first experiments investigating the psychology of eyewitness testimony (Hodgson and Davey, 1887), [and] empirical and conceptual studies illuminating mechanisms of dissociation and hypnotism"
In 1894, the Census of Hallucinations was published which sampled 17,000 people. Out of these, 1, 684 persons reported having experienced a hallucination of an apparition. Such efforts were claimed to have undermined "the notion of dissociation and hallucinations as intrinsically pathological phenomena"
The SPR investigated many spiritualist mediums such as Eva Carrière and Eusapia Palladino.
During the early twentieth century, the SPR studied a series of automatic scripts and trance utterances from a group of automatic writers, known as the cross-correspondences.
Famous cases investigated by the Society include Borley Rectory and the Enfield Poltergeist.
Exposures of Fraud
Much of the early work involved investigating, exposing and in some cases duplicating fake phenomena. In the late 19th century, SPR investigations into séance phenomena led to the exposure of many fraudulent mediums.
Richard Hodgson distinguished himself in that area. In 1884, Hodgson was sent by the SPR to India to investigate Helena Blavatsky and concluded that her claims of psychic power were fraudulent.
In 1886 and 1887 a series of publications by S. J. Davey, Hodgson and Sidgwick in the SPR journal exposed the slate writing tricks of the medium William Eglinton. Hodgson with his friend, S. J. Davey had staged fake séances for educating the public (including SPR members). Davey gave sittings under an assumed name, duplicating the phenomena produced by Eglinton, and then proceeded to point out to the sitters the manner in which they had been deceived. Because of this, some spiritualist members such as Stainton Moses resigned from the SPR.
In 1891, Alfred Russel Wallace requested for the Society to properly investigate spirit photography. Eleanor Sidgwick responded with a critical paper in the SPR which cast doubt on the subject and discussed the fraudulent methods that spirit photographers such as Édouard Isidore Buguet, Frederic Hudson and William H. Mumler had utilized.
Due to the exposure of William Hope and other fraudulent mediums, Arthur Conan Doyle led a mass resignation of eighty-four members of the Society for Psychical Research, as they believed the Society was opposed to spiritualism. Science historian William Hodson Brock has noted that "By the 1900s most avowed spiritualists had left the SPR and gone back to the BNAS (the London Spiritualist Alliance since 1884), having become upset by the sceptical tone of most of the SPR's investigations."
Criticism of the SPR
Sceptics have criticized members of the SPR for having motives liable to impair scientific objectivity. According to SPR critics John Grant and Eric Dingwall, early SPR members like Henry Sidgwick, Frederic W. H. Myers, and William Barrett hoped to cling to something spiritual through psychical research. Myers stated that "[T]he Society for Psychical Research was founded, with the establishment of thought-transference--already rising within measurable distance of proof--as its primary aim. ..." Defenders of the SPR have stated in reply that "a ‘will to believe’ in post-mortem survival, telepathy and other scientifically unpopular notions, does not necessarily exclude a ‘will to know’ and thus the capacity for thorough self-criticism, methodological rigour and relentless suspicion of errors."
The sceptic and physicist Victor J. Stenger has written:
The SPR ... on occasion exposed blatant cases of fraud even their own credulous memberships could not swallow. But their journals have never succeeded in achieving a high level of credibility in the eyes of the rest of the scientific community. ... most articles usually begin with the assumption that psychic phenomena are demonstrated realities.
Ivor Lloyd Tuckett an author of an early sceptical work on psychical research wrote that although the SPR have collected some valuable work, most of its active members have "no training in psychology fitting them for their task, and have been the victims of pronounced bias, as sometimes they themselves have admitted." Trevor H. Hall, an ex-member of the Society for Psychical Research, criticized SPR members as "credulous and obsessive wish... to believe." Hall also claimed SPR members "lack knowledge of deceptive methods."
Writer Edward Clodd asserted that the SPR members William F. Barrett and Oliver Lodge had insufficient competence for the detection of fraud and suggested that their spiritualist beliefs were based on magical thinking and primitive superstition. Clodd characterized the SPR as offering "barbaric spiritual philosophy", and characterized the language of SPR members, with such terms as "subliminal consciousness" and "telepathic energy," as a disguise for "bastard supernaturalism."
A 2004 psychological study involving 174 members of the Society for Psychical Research completed a delusional ideation questionnaire and a deductive reasoning task. As predicted, the study showed that "individuals who reported a strong belief in the paranormal made more errors and displayed more delusional ideation than sceptical individuals". There was also a reasoning bias which was limited to people who reported a belief in, rather than experience of, paranormal phenomena. The results suggested that reasoning abnormalities may have a causal role in the formation of paranormal belief.
Some sceptical members have resigned from the SPR. Eric Dingwall resigned and wrote " After sixty years' experience and personal acquaintance with most of the leading parapsychologists of that period I do not think I could name half a dozen whom I could call objective students who honestly wished to discover the truth. The great majority wanted to prove something or other: They wanted the phenomena into which they were inquiring to serve some purpose in supporting preconceived theories of their own."
The following is a list of presidents:
A number of other psychical research organisations use the term 'Society for Psychical Research' in their name.