A Study of Imagination Deficiency in Ten Cases of Skepticism.

By David Quinne

Since Joe Nickell's pioneering article appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer (Nickell, 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 an end.

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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 spreading irrationality.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 scientific terms.

  5. 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 astrology column.

  6. 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 obscure scholars.

  7. 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, Wiley, 340-390.

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 Australian Skeptics.