A Study of Imagination Deficiency in Ten Cases of Skepticism.
By David Quinne
Since Joe Nickell's pioneering article appeared in the Skeptical
1996), a controversy has raged over the role of personality in
belief systems. Nickell applied the much neglected work of Wilson &
Barber (1983), who listed certain identifying characteristics of people
who fantasize profoundly, to 13 cases of alleged alien abduction in Mach
(1994) and found a strong correlation. This work builds on the line of
inquiry inspired by Nickell.
In 1989 Barbara & Walters identified a group of skeptical people who
differed significantly from the population at large. Their subjects,
culled from various Internet discussion groups, were self identified
``skeptics.'' These skeptics showed an interest in science and
technology, showed distain for fringe claims, and were not shy about
sharing their views. Within this group Barbara & Walters identified
a subgroup of 28 people who showed a form of intense skepticism
including rejection of traditional social structures, references to a
common set of arguments, and an inability to bring a line of argument to
These 28 were given a battery of tests to determine their ability to
image, visualize, make abstractions, and socialize. Of the 28, 27
showed a strong cluster around a set of traits. What stood out as
unusual, was that this group of 27 really seemed to ``believe in
rationality'' above all else, and could not understand why anybody would
disagree. For this reason, Barbara & Walters dubbed the cluster
Imagination Deficient Personality (IDP)
Black & Decker (1991) reviewed the Internet postings of 136 skeptics
undergoing treatment for high blood pressure. In this group, they found
that 111 scored positive on at least one of Barbara & Walter's criterion
for IDP. They recommend that IDP should be added to the list of
criterion examined, when seeking a psychogenic cause of high blood
pressure, ulcers and other physical illnesses.
In 1993, Brothers divided 74 skeptical volunteers into two groups. The
first group consisted of 50 incidental skeptics (e.g., have read a copy
of Skeptical Inquirer
or argued with their mother about the evils of religion) and 24
lifestyle skeptics (e.g., written skeptical books, been on more than one
talk show or moved to Buffalo, NY). Interestingly, Brothers found IDP
was no more common in either group than in a control group, but the
lifestyle skeptics had a more intensive and vivid skeptical experience
that included a marked elevation of physiological measures including
blood pressure, voice stress and skin conductivity.
In this study, the written works of ten well known skeptics are compared
to seven criterion from Barbara & Walters (1883) Imagination Deficient
Personality (IDP) scale. In eight cases the skeptics scored seven out
of seven and the remaining two skeptics scored six out of seven for
these traits. The traits selected from Barbara & Walters are:
- Lack of meta-awareness: Imagination Deficient people show a lack of
awareness of the motivation or value systems of others. Often they will
make assumptions regarding ``right thinking'' which fail to take into
account the unique circumstances or social structure in which other
people live. For example, they may argue with people about religion or
other unprovable metaphysical beliefs. Low meta-awareness may also be
shown by disregard, or in the case of subject 7 hostility towards,
minorities or disfranchised people. Subjects 1, 8 and 9 actually
organized conferences dedicated to correcting the thinking of non-skeptics.
- Curmudgeonality: A person with IDP is often suspicious of or hostile
towards new social trends. Note, this is not the same as complaining
about progress (95% of IDP were strongly for progress in Barbara &
Walter's study), it is instead a sense that values are slipping, or the
world is suffering from spreading disrespect, irrationality or lowered
standards. Subjects 1, 7, 8 and 9 frequently made remarks regarding a
decline in society, all 10 subjects made at least passing reference to
- Transcendental Substitution: The Imagination Deficient person tends
not to participate in traditional social institutions which promote
brotherhood, tribal union or spiritual values, so many of them
substitute non-traditional institutions they find acceptable. For
example, the IDP may take up an interest in magic, or science, or they
may join a library. 64% of Barbara & Walter's IDP subjects subscribed
to three or more science magazines. Again, all 10 subjects were
positive on this indicator, 2 going so far as to set up temple like
structures in which to meet.
- Hyper-realistic representation: This is a tendency on the part of
the Imagination Deficient to expect a realistic or rational
representation in all aspects of life. For example, the IDP may engage
in nit picking about plot lines in TV programs or books, or complain
about contemporary linguistic usage which conflicts with a technical
term. Eight of the 10 subjects scored positive on this measure.
Subjects 8 and 9 wrote books substantially about correct usage of
- Fictional miss-identification: Often an IDP will react to fictional
representations as though they are real. For example, they may complain
about how a popular fictional TV programs portrays the paranormal, or
get irate if a book they are reading invokes a ghost or spirit, or has a
character convert to a spiritual outlook. Some write letters of
complaint to newspapers that, for example, carry an astrology column.
Once again all subjects were positive on this measure with one (Subject
5) even refusing to fly on an airline whose travel magazine included an
- Delusions of superiority: In many cases the IDP will believe that
they have special traits or talents not shared by other people. Usually
these are confined to a narrow range of human abilities, and tend to
center around issues of intelligence or education. In the mildly IDP
this may simply come off as immaturity, arrogance or elitism. Subject
3, however, consistently referred to others as ``Delusional'' or made
references to ``Elevator[s] not going to the top floor,'' and subjects 7,
8 and 9 dedicated substantial time to denigrating the works of some
- Mission directed outlook: The Imagination Deficient frequently
believe that they serve a greater cause, or that some necessary actions
must be taken to avoid disaster. All Ten Subjects, for example, make
reference to a ``rising tide of irrationality,'' and subjects 1, 3 and 5
invoke this before all public gatherings. In extreme cases this may
involve actions that resemble attempts at conversion or missionary work.
The category Imagination Deficient Personality is not offered as a
mental illness, or scientifically proven personality trait. It is
instead a category which helps to organize and understand what is
happening in cases of skepticism. Instead of dividing skeptics into the
usual two categories of ``negative nay-sayers'' and ``atheists,'' we can
instead see that many of them are really just imagination deficient.
The results of my study show high Imagination Deficiency among 10
selected skeptics. Whether or not the same results would be obtained
with additional skeptics remains to be seen. Nevertheless, my study
does support the earlier opinions of Barbara & Walters that alleged
rational people tend to be Imagination Deficient Personalities.
Certainly, that is the evidence from the very best skeptics as
represented by the popularity of their publications.
Barbara, Sharon C., and Virgil Y. Walters, 1989, The imagination
deficient personality: Implications for understanding agnosticism,
modernism and ordinary phenomena. In Logic, Current Theory, Research and
Application, ed. by Iam A. Souced, New York: Cyote, 304-309.
Black, Richard E., Flip Decker, 1991, High blood pressure and
rationality: Psychopathology or imagination deficiency? Professional
Hematology: Research and Practice, 22(3), 215-222.
Brothers, Goise, 1993, Distant discussion: An examination of the skeptical
experiences. Journal of Normal Psychology, 102(4), 624-632.
Mack, John, 1994, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens.
New York, Simon and Schuster.
Nickell, Joe, 1996, A study of fantasy proneness in the
thirteen cases of alleged encounters in John Mack's Abduction.
Skeptical Inquirer, 20(3), 18-20.
Wilson, Sheryl C., and Theodore X. Barber, 1983, The fantasy-prone
personality: Implications for understanding imagery, hypnosis,
and parapsychological phenomena. In Imagery, Current Theory,
Research and Applications, ed. by Anees A Sheikh, New York,
David Quinne is a Certified Public Psychic. He is a graduate of
Maharishi International University where he studied quantum metaphysics
with a minor in political science. In the past he has worked as an aid
to police officers, a private investigator and covert operator for
unnamed government agencies. David's current projects include a book
about his work as a police psychic, and a line of self-help pamphlets on
the paranormal. David lives in Lowville, in Upstate New York. This is
a slightly expanded version of an article which appeared in The
Skeptic, 14(2), a publication of the