Confirmation bias, according to its Wikipedia entry, is ‘the tendency to search for, interpret, or recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses’ and we’re all prone to this bias even when we think we’re not. In fact I think it’s fair to say that we’re really good at thinking we’re not biased when we actually are. This is why scientists introduce controls to their studies and get their peers to review and replicate their research to ensure that their results are not biased or flawed.
Being aware of confirmation bias is what I believe separates paranormal investigators from ghost hunters. This isn’t to say that being aware of confirmation bias means that your outcomes won’t be influenced by it, but attempting to keep your personal biases in check is always a good start which is why ghost hunters doom themselves to a future of agreeing with themselves and patting themselves on the back for proving themselves right via the use of pseudo-scientific apparatus or outdated and debunked spiritualist methods. An investigator should ask their colleagues their opinions of their findings and should consider constructive criticism. A ghost hunter will often take constructive criticism personally and (in my experience) will lash out in retaliation.
Anyone can call themselves a paranormal investigator or a ghost hunter and apply their own definitions to the terms. I’ve been known to use this phrase “ghost hunter” to describe myself in the past despite not actively looking to find ghosts and identifying more as a paranormal investigator or paranormal researcher. However, these are just words – what really sets us all apart are our methodologies.
A ghost hunter is someone who literally hunts or searches for ghosts and doesn’t seem to realise (or care) that this means they are using a completely biased methodology because they use tools and methods that assist in their quest to prove that they are encountering a ghost. An investigator or researcher is someone who spends their time investigating and… you guessed it, researching the case a bit further to establish the bigger picture in the hope that this will reveal the cause for what is being experienced and reported.
In order to do this effectively an investigator/researcher may spend a lot of time visiting the location, comparing data to build a complete set (e.g. the normal temperature fluctuations over the course of time in a room) and to observe patterns as/if they emerge (e.g. activity seems to increase when a certain person is present and whipping people’s expectations up). This isn’t always true though, there have been cases that I’ve managed to solve by simply speaking to people other than those who insist a location is haunted, or by visiting the location unexpectedly. Sometimes a few hours spent online looking in the right places will give you a lead, or perhaps an afternoon in the local reference library.
A ghost hunter will typically spend a day (or less) at the location and presume their data is complete after only a few hours worth of readings to compare against. They’ll present the history of the location as relevant and they’ll probably use a medium or a psychic. You can often tell you’re dealing with a ghost hunter because they’ll conduct their “research” at night-time and in the dark even if the reported activity occurred during the daytime or with the lights on.
Something odd will happen and a paranormal investigator will ask “Who? What? Where? When? How? Why?” whereas a ghost hunter will say “that’s weird, and it’s probably a ghost or evidence of something supernatural.” Ghost hunters will often be vague with the claims they make because they’re somewhat aware that they can’t prove anything scientifically because they rely on gut feeling whereas a paranormal investigator will question themselves as much as you question them and will welcome alternative opinions about their conclusions.
Methodologies used usually reflect the reason somebody becomes involved in ghost research or ghost hunting in the first place, but one has to wonder how proving your biases to be correct over and over again is a beneficial use of time and resources. Not forgetting those paranormal event companies who pretend to be honest researchers but rely on positive results for their events to stay relevant. If the only people that were being fooled were themselves I wouldn’t take issue with such irrational approaches but as anyone who follows this blog or has seen me speak in public will know, sloppy methodologies harm more people than you could imagine and should always be questioned.