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fantasy-prone personality (FPP)
'Fantasy-prone personality' (FPP) is an expression coined by psychologists Cheryl Wilson and Theodore Barber in a 1983 paper based on a small study on hypnotic susceptibility. Their work developed a theme put forth by Josephine R. Hilgard, a pioneer in the study of hypnosis.* Wilson and Barber interviewed 27 highly hypnotizable women and found that 26 of them shared "a series of interrelated characteristics, a syndrome or personality type that we are labeling as the fantasy-prone personality" (1983: p. 345). They compared the highly hypnotizable women to 25 "volunteers from the women students of a nearby college" who were paid $10 to be "tested for imaginative ability." Only one of the students was both highly hypnotizable and passed all the items on the Creative Imagination Scale, which is "a standardized instrument that measures equally well (1) responsiveness to guided imagining and (2) responsiveness to hypnotic suggestions of the type that emphasize the imagining-hallucinatory aspects of hypnosis" (p. 341). The 27 subjects, or fantasy-prone group, were not randomly selected, either. Two were in therapy with Wilson or Barber (for weight loss and phobia), five were "paraprofessional therapists" (some of whom practiced therapeutic touch), five were participants in earlier studies on hypnosis by Wilson and Barber, and fifteen were selected from their hypnosis workshops.
Without replication in larger studies using randomly selected samples, the findings of Wilson and Barber should be considered preliminary at best. Later research, however, has failed to replicate a strong association between being fantasy prone and being hypnotizable.* Further research has also called into question the claim that fantasy proneness constitutes a unitary personality type (Lynn & Rhue,1988, p. 43). Furthermore, some FPPs in the Wilson/Barber study reported strong parental encouragement to engage in imaginary activities, while others seem to have created a fantasy life as a means of escape from an abusive childhood.* There is scant compelling evidence that a significant percentage of abused children versus non-abused children grow up to be fantasy prone. This fact casts doubt on the notion that being abused as a child is a useful predictor of fantasy proneness, as some researchers have proposed. Wilson and Barber, however, do not make this suggestion.
There has been very little research that has attempted to replicate or validate Wilson and Barber's work.1 Nevertheless, the idea that there is a single type of personality that is susceptible to a variety of fantasies, but which doesn't cross an imaginary line into mental illness, has caught on among some investigators of phenomena such as alien abduction and mediumship. The classification of 'fantasy-prone personality' has been used to characterize people who experience such things as psychic powers, out-of-body experiences, UFO experiences, energy healing, false memories, automatic writing, night terrors, religious visions and messages, multiple personalities, and hallucinations.
Below are the main characteristics identified by Wilson and Barber as being shared by those designated fantasy-prone, in addition to being highly hypnotizable: (1) as children they lived in a make-believe world much or most of the time; (2) as adults "the extensiveness and vividness of their fantasy has not significantly decreased" (92% spend more than 50% of their time fantasizing, yet the typical fantasizer shares her secret fantasy life with no one; nobody in the comparison group said she spent more than 50% of her time fantasizing); (3) 65% hallucinate and experience their fantasies "as real as real"; (4) 64% occasionally pretend to be someone else; (5) most have very vivid sensory experiences, while only about 10% of the comparison group have vivid sensory experiences; (6) most have vivid memories, while only about 4% in the comparison group do; (7) most can produce physical effects by imagining experiences, including orgasm, feeling heat or cold, or illness at the thought of eating putrid food; several in the comparison group shared this ability; (8) 92% see themselves as psychic, compared to 16% in the student volunteers; (9) 88% reported having out-of-body or floating experiences, compared to 8% in the volunteer group; (Susan Blackmore reports that surveys have shown that about 15% to 20% of the population have had an OBE at some time during their lives [Blackmore, 1982]); (10) 50% of the fantasy-prone subjects and 8% of the volunteers experienced automatic writing; (11) six in the fantasy-prone group and none in the comparison group experienced religious visions; (12) more than two-thirds of the fantasy-prone subjects and none in the comparison group think they have healing powers; (13) 73% of the fantasizers and 16% of the comparison group think they've encountered spirits or ghosts; (14) 64% of the fantazisers and 8% of the comparison group reported experiencing hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations (waking dreams), including monsters from outer space). Wilson and Barber write: "An additional shared characteristic that we cannot overemphasize is that all 26 fantasy-prone subjects are socially aware and function much like any other group of educated American women" (p. 365).
As far as I can tell, the FPP classification has little predictive or explanatory power. It's a handy tag for many of the psychic and religious actors who grace the pages of The Skeptic's Dictionary. I suppose one could profitably predict that a clear-cut FPP like Sylvia Browne or Whitley Streiber would be an untrustworthy source for anything but the most mundane matter. Other than that, however, I don't see much value in the FPP classification. (One must wonder about the value of a label that unites a gregarious, interminable babbler like Sylvia Browne and a creative loner like Emily Brontë.)
One reason, perhaps, that there has been little clinical interest in studying the FPP is that the designation seems designed to indicate that a person—despite some obvious delusions, or weird behaviors, beliefs, or traits—is not in need of clinical treatment. There is no treatment for a religious fantasist like Catalina Rivas or for the person who believes she was abducted by aliens. The nurses who believe they are healing people by waving their hands over patients' bodies may be deluded, but they are not mentally ill. People who lead rich fantasy lives, including those who take their imaginary playmates from childhood into adulthood, may lead otherwise "normal" lives. To the fantasist the other persons living in her body, the voices of dead people she hears, the ghosts and demons that haunt her rooms at night, the lives she thinks she led centuries ago, etc. are as real as the dog that bit the mailperson last week. Most of us can tell the difference between playing tennis, say, and imagining that we're playing tennis. Some people can't distinguish between the two, but they can hold an intelligent conversation, bring home a paycheck, and pour a decent cocktail. Obviously, some people with rich fantasy lives create wonderful and important art and literature. Being fantasy-prone in itself hardly seems worthy of a deprecatory label. What matters are the kinds of fantasies involved, how they affect the lives of the fantasist and her followers, and whether the fantasist can tell the difference between, say, seeing and feeling a demon sitting on her chest and actually having a demon sitting on her chest.
Steven Novella, M.D., divides the characteristics listed by Wilson and Barber into two distinct sets of traits: 1) heightened fantasizing and creativity, and 2) impaired reality testing and heightened auto-sensation. Only the second set is deleterious. Skeptics are concerned with the people who can't tell the difference between their fantasies and reality. Novella says:
...the totality of the research indicates that there is this broad clinical entity known as the fantasy-prone personality type, which is likely comprised of various psychological and neurological conditions that result in heightened fantasizing and/or an impaired ability to distinguish internal fantasy from external reality. Research indicates that this subset of humanity is disproportionately responsible for a large number of reported paranormal experiences, including ghosts, angels, aliens, abductions, out-of-body experiences, near-death-experiences, reincarnation, and others.
As noted above, the research so far does not indicate that there is a "clinical entity" meaningfully designated by the label "fantasy-prone personality." Being a Wilson/Barber FPP may have no more explanatory power than "having sleep-inducing power" has for how a sleeping pill works. Metrics other than the Wilson/Barber metric may prove useful, but that depends on the outcome of further research. In my opinion, the most promising characteristic for finding a psychological or neurological condition with significant explanatory and predictive power regarding paranormal and religious experiences is the ability to hallucinate and experience fantasies "as real as real," which was found in 65% of Wilson and Barber's small sample of fantasy-prone subjects. They mention Nikola Tesla, "who was able to hallucinate whatever he was thinking or imagining" (p. 368). Others are able to hallucinate auditory, tactile, and olfactory sensations that are "as real as real." Some people can hallucinate at will; others have no control over their hallucinations. Some people seem to "dream while awake." Wilson and Barber do not distinguish between such things as visual thinking, which Tesla and people like Temple Grandin represent, and hallucinating. The difference between visual or auditory thinking and hallucination is that the latter appears to the perceiver to be located in external space, while the former are recognized by the thinker as being internal. I'm hallucinating if I think the voices I hear have an external basis but they don't; I'm not hallucinating when I think in words or imagine a place I've been to or run a tune through my head.The evidence so far does not warrant claiming that the ability to hallucinate vivid images that are indistinguishable from perceptions caused by external objects is necessarily associated with a tendency to live in a fantasy world most of the time. The key to living in a fantasy world is not whether one perceives vividly but whether one can tell the difference between self-generated vivid thoughts and illusions.
FPP is one of those areas where there is little doubt that more research needs to be done before anything conclusive should be claimed. One difficulty I see for researchers in this area is attracting loners to participate in their surveys and studies. If the samples include only college students and circus acts like Sylvia Browne, the profile will be terminally ill at birth. Worse, if the profile does not include the fantasies of the world's religions, it would ignore the chief fantasies of mankind. If it includes them, it is rendered useless by its designating most members of the species as fantasy prone.
1 One study of 62 subjects concluded: "Low fantasy-prone subjects were no less creative or less responsive to hypnosis than their medium fantasy-prone counterparts." Another study concluded: "Fantasy proneness and absorption ['openness to absorbing and self-altering experiences'] were not found to be truly discriminable constructs." One study found an association between fantasy proneness and vulnerability to schizophrenia. Also, one study found no correlation between fantasy-proneness and alien abduction experiences, contradicting Robert Baker and Joe Nickell.
Baker, Robert A. 1987-1988. The aliens among us: Hypnotic regression revisited. Skeptical Inquirer 12(2) (Winter): pp. 147-162. Baker refers to Wilson and Barber's paper (see below) as "important but much neglected." It's certainly been much neglected.
Hull, Jay G. 1996. When explanations fail: Science and pseudoscience in psychology. Psychological Inquiry, 7, 149–50. Page 149 is online.
Lynn, S. J. and J. W. Rhue. 1988. Fantasy proneness: Hypnosis, developmental antecedents, and psychopathology. American Psychologist.
Merckelbach, H., R. Horselenberg and P. Muris. 2000. “The Creative Experiences Questionnaire (CEQ): a brief self-report measure of fantasy-proneness,” Personality and Individual Differences, 31, 987–995.
Newman, L. S., and R. F. Baumeister. 1996. Not just another false memory: Further thoughts on the UFO abduction phenomenon. Psychological Inquiry, 7, 185-197.Nickell, Joe. 1996. A Study of Fantasy Proneness in the Thirteen Cases of Alleged Encounters in John Mack’s Abduction. Investigative Files, Volume 20.3, May/June.
Nickell, Joe. 2010. The Real 'Ghost Whisperer'. Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 34, Issue 4. (Nickell argues that the "evidence strongly indicates" that Mary Ann Winkowski, who says she talks to "earthbound spirits," is an FPP.)
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 Application, ed. by Anees A. Sheikh, New York: Wiley, pp. 340-390.