Weird Science

Christopher Newport is a nexus of undergraduate research, from particle acceleration to ancient Roman coins, and from political campaign marketing to Old English translation to … weird beliefs. Stephanie Delneky, a senior psychology major from Fredericksburg, studies why people turn to pseudoscientific or paranormal explanations for events in the natural world. She’s part of a research team assembled by Dr. Jason Hart, Chair of the Department of Psychology. They believe that as a person’s level of ambiguity, anxiety and/or uncertainty about something rises, the more likely he or she may be to turn to conspiracy theories, precognition, alien abduction and the like as the explanation.

“Looking at data from the past two decades, Americans continue to adopt and hold pseudoscientific and paranormal beliefs at an alarming rate,” Hart says. “My team is identifying the biological, psychological and environmental factors that increase this tendency to adopt weird beliefs.” Delneky explains that such beliefs fall under two categories, those which lack supporting evidence, and those that are contrary to known fact. The first type includes belief in ghosts, near-death experiences and extrasensory perception. Holocaust and evolution deniers, among others, comprise the second class.

Deep involvement in research by undergraduates is common at CNU, but rare at many larger schools, where it is generally reserved for graduate students and postdoctoral staff. Delneky has invested heavily in the project, surveying past research and conducting a variety of tests and experiments. “I was quickly drawn to Dr. Hart’s research,” she says. “I enjoy focusing on the clinical aspects of psychology as well as why and how people believe in the paranormal.” She continues, “It is essential to study these topics to find out why people believe, and to examine evidence either supporting or refuting those beliefs. People should be wary of such weird beliefs because they can influence how we perceive the world around us.”

Delneky and Hart have also collaborated to present the team’s findings at two conferences of the Midwestern Psychological Association in Chicago. “Both trips were not only academically helpful for my future, but also experiences I will never forget,” she says. She plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology after graduation from Christopher Newport.

Delneky credits Hart with helping her find her niche at CNU. “Dr. Hart has provided me with more opportunities than I ever would have imagined,” she says. “From the beginning, he was my adviser, and he was always there to answer any questions regarding class or CNU in general.” She was particularly grateful for Hart’s willingness to help her get involved beyond the classroom. “For a while I had trouble finding my place at CNU, but Dr. Hart worked with me to find clubs and other activities,” says Delneky. She went on to a rich involvement on campus, from pursuing two minors in leadership studies and sociology, to greater participation in the President’s Leadership Program. She has also carved out time for several intramural sports and talent shows and dance competitions.

“I met Stephanie as an incoming freshman,” says Hart. “I knew right away she had enormous potential as a researcher. She has a refreshing combination of maturity, intelligence and an appreciation for learning that is well-suited to conducting research.” Indeed, Delneky’s hard work and perseverance at CNU has paid off, as she is co-authoring a journal article with Hart. “Based on her academics and her interpersonal qualities, I have no doubt about Stephanie’s ability to make a meaningful difference in the world,” Hart says.

As the team continues to pursue their findings and analyze data from their study of strange beliefs, Delneky reflects on the close relationships students form with faculty at CNU, which are instrumental to the success of projects such as this. “CNU provides the whole experience, not just one aspect of college,” she says. “I have not only benefited from the academics here, but I have met some of the most amazing people in my journey, both professors and students, who have led me to experiences I will never forget.”

Nothing weird about that. -- Brian McGuire