A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

Pearl Curran (Patience Worth) and the Fantasy-Prone Personality Label


Robert Todd Carroll

Joe NickellIn his article, “Ghost Author? The Channeling of ‘Patience Worth’” (Skeptical Inquirer, May 1, 2012), Joe Nickell writes that “the century-old case can now be closed.”

There are actually two cases here. One is the case Nickell declares closed—the one where Pearl Curran (1883–1937) claims that a spirit "set free" from her body in Nantucket by Indians in the 17th century migrated into a board game in St. Louis three hundred years later to dictate books. For me, that case was closed before it was opened. The story is too preposterous to take seriously. The other case, however, is intriguing and involves trying to figure out how she pulled off her channeling stunt. What was her motivation? Who helped her? Did Pearl Curran deliberately defraud her publisher and true believer in spiritualism Henry Holt? The case as to whether Curran was a hoaxer and fraud or just deluded still http://skepdic.com/graphics/pearlcurran.jpgremains open. (I suppose there are other possibilities, but I can’t think of any worth considering, except that perhaps she was both a fraud and deluded.) Maybe Curran was, as Nickell claims, a fantasy-prone personality, but was she aware of the fact that Patience Worth wasn’t really a spirit? Did Curran suffer from dissociation identity disorder, as some have claimed, while retaining the ability to recognize that her alter was her own creation?

What kind of evidence would be relevant to determining whether Curran was a fraud? Her writings, manuscripts, letters, etc. might help here if there is a confession somewhere or if the documents show they were written by someone other than Curran. The study of documents like those Nickell examined reveal, as he noted, that her writing process was pretty much like that of many other writers in terms of writing and rewriting. The spirit of Patience Worth might have had the power to travel back to the time of Jesus to do original research, but it couldn’t dictate anything without requiring rewrites and second starts, etc. (That’s in addition to the silly expressions like 'many moons ago', her misuse of 17th century pronouns, and all the fey Scottishisms in her writings.) The belief that she had a second personality dissociated from her Curran-self seems to be based on little more than the fact that Curran claimed her books and poems were dictated to her by Patience Worth. Since the issue of fraud hinges on whether Curran is trustworthy, we really can’t use her testimony to verify that a dissociated persona was doing the writing.
In any case, does calling Worth a fantasy-prone personality (FPP) let her off the fraud hook too easily? I’m not convinced that she didn’t pull off one of the better literary hoaxes of her time. She may deserve more credit for getting published and promoting her writing than she’s been given.

the fantasy-prone personality

Cheryl Wilson and Theodore Barber’s 1983 paper—in which the expression ‘fantasy-prone personality’ was coined—was based on a small study of hypnotic susceptibility. 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, 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." The 27 subjects in the 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. This sample hardly comprises a representative sample of highly hypnotizable people and certainly is not sufficient to justify deriving a personality type from qualities these folks shared.

Without replication in larger studies using randomly selected samples or at least samples of other types of fantasizers (artists and creative writers, for example, or at least a group not identified by their attachment to hypnosis), 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, much less a strong association between being fantasy-prone and believing one has been abducted by aliens, a claim made by Nickell in another article (Nickell 1996).

One study of 62 subjects by Lynn and Rhue concluded: “Low fantasy-prone subjects were no less creative or less responsive to hypnosis than their medium fantasy-prone counterparts” (1986).  Other research has called into question the claim that fantasy proneness constitutes a unitary personality type (Lynn & Rhue,1988, 43).

There has been very little research that has attempted to replicate or validate Wilson and Barber’s work. I think until replication is done we should refrain from putting forth as certain 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 a treatable mental disorder. In any case, I don’t know what predictive or explanatory power the concept of the FPP has, especially since the label has been applied to such disparate characters as Sylvia Browne and Emily Brontë (Dash 2010), the one a gregarious, interminable babbler and the other a creative loner.

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 mentally ill and not in need of clinical treatment. The nurses who believe they are healing people by waving their hands over patients’ bodies may be deluded, but they are not necessarily 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 mail carrier 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.(“The Fantasy Prone Personality”)

As noted above, the research so far does not indicate that there is a "clinical entity" meaningfully designated by the label "fantasy-prone personality." I realize that Nickell was able to identify in 13 of John Mack’s best cases for alien abduction a significant number of the fourteen traits that Wilson and Barber listed as traits of the fantasy prone. I also realize that Bartholomew et al. (1991) found at least one major trait from the Wilson/Barber list in 132 of 152 alien abduction cases. But neither of these studies validates either the existence or the utility of the FPP. The list of characteristics certainly deserves some scrutiny, but I’m not sure Novella’s division is sufficient. Wilson and Barber found that two-thirds of their FPP subjects believed that they possess healing powers, indicating impaired reality testing or at least a disability in critical thinking and knowledge of how the body works. Five of these subjects were “paraprofessional therapists” and fifteen were selected from their hypnosis workshops. This non-random sample is clearly so biased as to call into question the basic idea that Wilson and Barber discovered a personality type.

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” (1983, 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 hallucinations is that the latter appear 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 or 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 designating most members of the species as fantasy prone.

misleading labels

While doing research on multiple personalities I stumbled upon a website (www.karitas.net/pavilion/) run by and for fantasizers who do not claim to have been abducted by aliens or have delusions of healing powers or many of the other traits listed by Wilson and Barber. This is how they describe themselves:

….people who are living sane, functional, healthy, productive lives as multiples; undiagnosed, not in therapy, but knowing they are many. Not broken pieces of a single, original person, but many people sharing the same body. Not made-up hysterical delusions, but responsible individuals who cooperate amongst each other and support each other just like a family. Not seeking to blame mistakes and bad behavior on ‘alters,’ we live by codes of group responsibility.

We are everywhere: your neighbors, your co-workers, maybe even your friends and family. We are web designers, lawyers, psychologists, scientists, engineers, artists, writers; mothers, fathers, husbands and wives. We are ‘in the closet,’ our voices silenced, afraid to speak the truth of our existence as many, because we are all too aware of the loss of credibility, the risk, that would come with it—whether it’s because we’re perceived as dangerous victims of a mental illness or attention-seeking posers.

If I were a psychologist who wanted to do further study on the concept of the fantasy-prone personality, I think I might contact the people in this group. They probably wouldn’t cooperate, though, with anyone who considers them mentally ill or thinks that their fantasy-proneness will lead them to various delusions about psychic powers, UFO experiences, OBEs, energy healing, automatic writing, religious visions, or a host of other things that some skeptics think issue from fantasy proneness.

To label Pearl Curran as a fantasy-prone personality doesn’t seem to tell us much. The label is of no help in figuring out whether she was a fraud, deluded, or both. Calling her an FPP diverts attention from the fraud issue. The label may be too kind and generous, going beyond what she deserves. On the other hand, Gioia Diliberto and others exaggerate when they call the Patience Worth case “one of the most tantalizing literary mysteries of the last century.” It is unlikely that most of Curran’s work as Worth remains out of print only because people suspect she was a fraud. There may have been some who thought her work had high literary merit, but the fact that she was a shooting star whose fame burned out early is a testament to the likelihood that her work was little more than a curiosity. Kudos to her for getting the attention she did, but let’s neither overestimate her importance nor underestimate her achievement.


Bartholomew, Robert E., Keith Basterfield, and George S. Howard. 1991. UFO abductees and contactees: Psychopathology or fantasy proneness? Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 22(3): 215-222.

Dash, Mike. 2010. Emily Brontë: a fantasy-prone personality. http://blogs.forteana.org/node/98. Accessed 4.23/2012.

Diliberto, Gioia. “Patience Worth: Author From the Great Beyond,” Smithsonian magazine, September 2010.

Lynn, Steven J. and Judith W. Rhue. 1986. The fantasy-prone person: hypnosis, imagination, and creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(2):404-8.

Lynn, S. J. and J. W. Rhue. 1988. Fantasy proneness: Hypnosis, developmental antecedents, and psychopathology. American Psychologist.

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.

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. Anees A. Sheikh (New York: Wiley, 1983), 340-390.

20 August 2012

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