Social Psychology of Flim-flam

Courses Home

Psych 150
Tuesday & Thursday 8:00-9:45 am
Winter 2005 Social Science I Room 161
Anthony R. Pratkanis
Office: 365 Social Science II
Office Hours: Tuesday & Thursday 10:00-11:00 am
Messages: 459-5085

Why do we believe strange things? Why do some people believe that ancient astronauts once roamed the earth, a peach pit can cure cancer, the government is hiding information about space aliens crashing at Roswell, NM , the Loch Ness monster and Big Foot exist, Uri Geller can use his mind to bend spoons, there really is a Ramtha, the incoherent ramblings of Nostradamus somehow predict the future, one race of people is somehow superior to another, and pretending to be rebirthed will cure disease and reduce anxiety? Why do we sometimes believe even stranger things?

This course will use basic social psychological principles, such as the principles of social cognition, social influence, group process, and self-justification to understand why we believe what we believe. As we investigate our beliefs, we will develop our critical and scientific thinking skills so that we can think more clearly about everyday matters of life.

At the end of the course, the student should master these objectives:

(a) apply social psychological concepts to understand why we believe what we believe
(b) develop critical thinking and scientific analysis skills to apply to the evaluation of strange and not-so-strange claims
(c) describe and debunk some of the more common flimflams in our demon-haunted world.

Required Textbooks

Keene, M. L. (1976/1997). The psychic mafia. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
Sagan, C. (1995). The demon-haunted world. New York: Random House.
Hines, T. (2003). Pseudoscience and the paranormal. (2nd Ed.). Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books
Baker, R. A. & Nickell, J. (1992). Missing pieces. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

plus only one of the following additional books:

Barrett, S. & Jarvis W. T. (1993). The Health Robbers. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
Culver, R. B. & Ianna, P. A. (1988). Astrology: True or false? Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
Sheaffer, R. (1998). The UFO Sightings. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books
Singer, M. (1996). Crazy therapies. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Stiebing, W. H. (1984). Ancient Astronauts, cosmic collisions. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
Randi, J. (1993). The mask of Nostradamus. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Course Format

The course consists of lectures and class discussions plus assigned readings. (Assigned text should be read in conjunction with the lecture). The course evaluation will be based on: (1) four homework assignments, (2) a major flimflam analysis, (3) a major poster project, (4) class exercises involving discussion of projects, and (4) participation in class discussions plus any additional comments that the instructor considers appropriate. All written assignments must be submitted in writing – no emailing of assignments. The narrative evaluation will consist of a short summary of the student’s performance in the course. Note: if the course is taken for Pass/No Pass, then a grade of "Good (C)" or better must be earned to obtain course credit. Under the pass/no pass option, a grade of D (marginal pass) or F (no pass) results in a no pass for the course.

Homework Assignments

The purpose of the homework assignments is to (a) reinforce core concepts from the lectures and readings and (b) allow the student to apply these concepts to novel examples. Each assignment should be completed as noted on the course calendar. In completing the assignment, students will be given a problem to be analyzed. Homework assignments should be typed, well written (see below), and as brief as possible.

The homework assignments will look at:

1. What is flimflam?
2. The application of science to weird beliefs
3. The cognitive biases underlying belief
4. How to sell flimflam

Flimflam Analysis

In the third part of the course, we will be investigating various claims dealing with UFOs (Sheaffer), astrology (Culver & Ianna), ancient astronauts (Stiebing), the prophecy of Nostradamus (Randi), health care (Barrett & Jarvis), and mental health care (Singer). Each student will select one of these topics by purchasing just one of the additional books (listed above), which corresponds to the topic. The student’s responsibility is twofold: (a) help lead the class discussion for their topic (student will lead the class with others who have read the same book; see calendar for dates) and (b) conduct a personal flimflam analysis on their topic (to be completed before the class discussion of the topic; each student will submit his or her own analysis).

A flimflam analysis of the topic should include the following (the second part of the course will describe these aspects in detail):

I. State the claim or belief (some of the books involve multiple claims; just choose your favorite)
II. Describe the evidence for the claim given by supporters
III. Be a scientist by asking:
A. What else can it be?
B. So what? (What are the testable consequences of the belief)?
C. What is the evidence in support of each hypothesis
IV. Evaluate the evidence in terms of
A. Logical fallacies
B. Confounds
C. Psychological distortions
D. “The outs”
E. Occam’s razor
F. Control or comparison group
G. Any other problems with the data
V. Describe why people might believe the claim in terms of
A. The cognitive biases played upon by the pseudoscience
B. Influence tactics used to increase support for the claim
C. Group pressures supporting the belief
D. Deceptive practices used to support the claim

Poster Projects

The purpose of the poster project is to provide an opportunity to apply the critical information of the course to an area of particular interest to the student. Topics must be approved by the instructor. Some suitable ideas include: (a) case analysis – select a group of people who believe in something strange and attempt to understand why they believe as they do, (b) historical analysis – select an idea (e.g., the unconscious, New Age thought) or group (e.g., Branch Davidians) and trace their development over time, (c) flimflam protection – describe actions society and individuals can take to protect themselves from a specific flimflam or flimflam in general, (d) culture analysis – describe how some cultural practices (such as the mass media) provide fertile ground for flimflam, (e) literature review – choose a general topic in social psychology of relevance to the study of beliefs and review the recent literature or select a theoretical question of interest and answer it, (f) flimflam impact analysis – select some belief (such as phrenology, astrology, etc.) and show how it impacts society today (even if the belief is not widely held), (g) debunking analysis – systematically review and critique the claims made in support of a given pseudoscience, and (h) research design – select a claim and evaluate it using original empirical data or demonstrate a psychological process underlying belief formation.

The class project should be ambitious and challenging in scope. Students should attempt to attack a problem of substance and importance and should view this project as if it were being submitted to an audience outside of this class and UCSC (i.e. an article for publication or a project report for an employer). In order to accomplish this goal, students will work in groups of 3 class members. In work groups, students should be able to accomplish such projects as designing and executing research evaluating a claim, conducting a comprehensive literature review on a difficult topic, or carrying out a case study. Evaluations will be equally shared among all group members.

The poster project requires the following: First, find a group and a topic. (See calendar for dates for submitting a preliminary statement of group members and topic). Second, develop your poster idea. As part of this development, submit a statement of intent, which includes your topic, the names of the group members, and an overview of tasks to be performed. Note: submission of this statement of intent should be done early in the term. (See course calendar for due date). Third, do the research. Fourth, prepare a poster describing what your research has shown (see next paragraph) along with a copy of the written materials for submission to the instructor. (The written copy is due at the Poster Session. This can be a short summary of the poster or a copy of the text of the poster). Fifth, display your poster at the end-of-term Poster Session. During this session, one group member must stay with the poster at all times to answer questions. Students not presenting posters will mix freely around the posters to discuss research content and provide feedback to the presenters.

Physically, each group will have roughly 8 feet of wall space to display their research. Typically, a poster consists of a series of pages or panels describing the research. For example, one page may outline the research hypothesis. Another page may list the methods, followed by results, and then discussion. Given the nature of posters, print must be large and text kept to simple sentences and phrases. Students should not feel limited to just text material and can include graphs, slides, audio-visuals, computer displays, and models. It is the responsibility of the group to bring materials for setting up the poster and attaching it to the wall, as well as, securing any additional materials need for presentation. Note: please use pushpins or other devices that will not damage walls when securing your posters. A copy of the written text of the poster plus any supporting materials must be turned-in to the instructor at the Poster Session.

A good poster project has the following attributes: (1) integrative of course material, (2) original and creative, (3) informative and instructional (provides a learning experience for both reader and writer), and (4) readable. The format of the paper must follow American Psychological Association guidelines as much as possible.

Some tactics for improving the style of your poster include: (1) use tables, figures, charts, and headings to improve organization, (2) get to the point quickly, (3) use simple words and sentences, (4) type it, (5) don't hand in a first draft (revise to get the lard out), (6) use proper footnote and reference formats, and (7) make it short (don't waste anybody's time, more than 10 pages is probably too long). Further hints on writing can be found in Strunk and White's Elements of Style, J.D. Lester's Writing Research Papers, Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses and Dissertations, and Soden's Looking Good on Paper.

Some tactics for improving content include: (1) select a topic related to the course, (2) use information related to the course, (3) collect your own data (e.g., interviews, write groups, locate articles in academic journals), (4) back up your statements with references to published works or other data, and (5) draw your own inferences that go beyond mere repetition of those of your references.

One final note: Working in groups is often challenging, but it is a skill that is required in various settings. First, you should be prepared to work with your group at times outside of class to be scheduled by your group. Second, to facilitate group work, it may be helpful to develop a written list of responsibilities assigned to each group member. This list should detail exactly what is expected of each member (e.g., listing all anticipated tasks and describing each member's responsibilities including who will coordinate group activities). This will help everyone in the group to know what is expected. Third, you should be aware of your group's process at all times. It is the responsibility of group members, not that of the instructor, to ensure the performance of each member.

Finding Flimflam

You will probably enjoy this class more if you find your own flimflam to analyze and study. The homework and the poster projects both require you to find flimflam to debunk. How do you find flimflam? Well, it is probably easier than you think. Here are some places to look.

Books. Books proclaiming everything from the end of the world to the discovery of Atlantis to the latest quack cure-all to the latest buzzword-based technique for business can be found in any bookstore. Books providing a critique of these claims are harder to come by. (For example, UCSC’s library originally had only one of the 10 books used for this course). However, Prometheus Books (of Buffalo, NY) has published many books providing a skeptical appraisal of weird claims. Their web address is given below. In addition, the textbooks by Hines and by Baker & Nickell describe a variety of psuedosciences.

Magazines. The Skeptical Inquirer is a bimonthly magazine devoted to analyzing weird beliefs, claims about the paranormal, and the nature of science. Current and back issues are available at McHenry library (call number BF1001.S55).

Watch TV. The mass media obtain great ratings when they take a nonevent (such as the Bermuda Triangle) and make it mysterious. You can find some great examples of flimflam by just watching the news or a so-called documentary on something mysterious.

Web Sites. One way to find out about a given set of beliefs is to use the search engine of your favorite web browser (for example, type in “Heaven’s Gate” or “Yeti” or “Edgar Cayce”). Most major flimflam groups have their own web sites, which will provide you with rich information on their history, beliefs, and current practices. You may also find the following web sites of value in searching for information about weird beliefs and groups: (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal) (James Randi’s web page; can you win the $1 million?) (Skeptic Magazine’s web page) (links to weird beliefs) (more links to the paranormal) (the most links to weird things) (your guide to urban legends and other myths) (information on cults) (more information on cults) (Freedom of Mind Resource Center maintained by Steven Hassan, one of America’s leading cult counselor). (latest health flimflam) (The Science and Pseudoscience Review in Mental Health features a review of the latest therapy crazes. Why not submit your own review?) (consumer fraud information) (more consumer fraud information) (find out about how to dissect an alien) (find out how to make crop circles) (Prometheus Books)

In addition, these sites can help you find out more about psychology: (guide to careers in social psychology) (guide to APA style) (provides valuable information on how to apply to graduate school in psychology) (info on careers in psychology) (homepage for the American Psychological Association) (homepage for the American Psychological Society) (homepage for the Society of Personality and Social Psychology)

Walk Around Campus and Santa Cruz. Finally, believe it or not, you can probably find examples of weird beliefs and flimflam right here on campus and in the city of Santa Cruz. For example, dowsers hold a convention each summer at UCSC, and UCSC was the birthplace of NLP. Cults often advertise on campus. In downtown Santa Cruz, you can find shops selling crystals in pants, subliminal tapes, and the latest New Age trinkets. Santa Cruz is often at the cutting edge of the latest fad diet or health regime. A local church routinely displays a “Shroud of Turin” exhibit, and the “Mystery Spot” is a popular tourist attraction. During the 1920s & 1930s, the Santa Cruz Mountains were the home of a leading cult – The Holy City. (You might have seen signs for this on Highway 17; one of F. Lee Bailey’s first cases was defending the first amendment rights of the leader of the Holy City). A museum has opened in Felton, CA exhibiting Bigfoot memorabilia.

Class Participation

Students should be active participants in class discussions and lectures. There will be in-class exercises involving active student participation. Participation is particularly important during the discussion of homework projects (asking questions, providing feedback), the lecture on the topic of your flimflam analysis, and the poster session. If you miss class, it is the student's responsibility to cover missed materials. (It is not the instructor's responsibility to provide lecture notes, repeat lectures, etc.)


An employer once informed me that educators do a major disservice by accepting late assignments. In her world, missing a deadline means a lost account. Therefore tardiness will not be tolerated. It is unfair to other students who emit course related behavior in timely fashion, unfair to the instructor who must rearrange work schedules, and most importantly represents a pattern of behavior that is unprofitable in the real world. Given that many of the assignments involve class projects, late work will be penalized. Late work will be graded on a curve where the lowest grade in the class (among those submitting the paper on time) becomes the highest grade possible. A written assignment is considered late if it is submitted up to 3 school days after the due date. After that, the paper will not be accepted. Oral assignments must be performed on the scheduled class date. Assignments that are not completed receive a 0 (zero), which is averaged with the student’s other grades to determine the overall grade. Required assignments are not optional.

Enrollment Policy
This course follows the enrollment policy established by the psychology department. These procedures are not negotiable and will be followed to the letter. You may not take this course using the "Credit by Petition" option.


Plagiarism is a very serious offense and will not be tolerated. Any paper containing plagiarized material will not be accepted for credit in this course. Plagiarism is defined as any use of another author's words or ideas without appropriately providing credit. Exact quotes from another source should be placed within quotation marks with an appropriate citation including page number. In addition, paraphrases of another author's words may also count as plagiarism; changing around the order of the words or the exact prepositions used does not change the fact that you are using another person's ideas. Submission of another paper (whether a classmates or from an on-line service) is plagiarism. Use your own words to describe the studies and findings that you want to describe in your paper. The campus policy on plagiarism can be found at:

You should consult this website before agreeing to take this course. Enrollment in this course represents acceptance of university rules and guidelines and a commitment to abide by those rules and guidelines. Any questions about this policy can be direct to the instructor.

Letters of Recommendation

After the course, students frequently ask the instructor for a letter of recommendation. Writing letters of reference is not a task that is part of the instructor’s job, and the writing of such letters is up to instructor discretion. The first step in this procedure is to ask the instructor if he is willing to write such a letter for you. Do not send unsolicited materials to the instructor. They will be returned. Also, please do not use the instructor as a "reference" (with potential employers, landlords, banks, credit cards companies, etc.) without the approval of the instructor.

Important Notice

Please review the Course Calendar below before agreeing to take this course. All activities are planned; some important activities are performed in groups. Late work will be penalized. Missed work will receive a no-pass.

A Note on the Readings

The course calendar lists the date when each reading should be done. However, you may wish to do as much of the readings (as possible) at the beginning of the course. The required readings are well written, engaging, and on interesting topics. By doing the readings as early as possible, you provide a foundation for conducting your own flimflam analysis and for developing your poster ideas.

Course Calendar

Part 1: Introduction

Jan. 4: Introduction to Flimflam
Tu Assignment: Baker & Nickell Introduction
Homework #1 Distributed

Jan. 6: What is Flimflam?
Th Note: Class Discussion of Homework #1
Assignment: Hines Chs. 1 & 13 plus appendix; Sagan Ch. 1; Baker & Nickell Ch. 1
Homework #1 (What is flimflam?) Due

Part 2: How to Analyze Flimflam

Jan. 11: Advanced Child’s Play or the Art of Bending over Backwards to Prove Yourself Wrong
Tu Assignment: Sagan Chs. 2, 18, 19 & 20; Baker & Nickell Ch. 2
Homework #2 (Applying Science) Distributed

Jan. 13: What is Evidence?
Th Assignment: Sagan Ch. 12; Hines Ch. 4; Baker & Nickell Ch. 3
Preliminary Poster Idea and Group Due

Jan. 18: Applying Science to Fraud
Tu Note: Class Discussion of Homework #2
Assignment: Hines Ch. 2; Baker & Nickell Chs. 4, 5, 6, & 7
Homework #2 (Applying Science) Due

Jan. 20: Some Biases in Thinking
Th Assignment: Sagan Chs. 3-7; Hines Chs. 6 & 11
Homework #3 (Cognitive Biases) Distributed
Jan. 25: The Nature of Belief
Tu Note: Class Discussion of Homework #3
Assignment: Sagan Chs. 8-11; Hines Ch. 10
Poster Group Work Plan Due
Homework #3 (Cognitive Biases) Due

Jan. 27: How to Sell a Pseudoscience
Th Assignment: Begin Keene
Homework #4 (Selling Flimflam) Distributed

Note: Now is a good time to start reading your book for the flimflam analysis (if you haven’t already).

Feb. 1: The Art of Deception
Tu Assignment: Finish Keene

Feb. 3: Lies and Deception
Th Note: Class discussion of Homework #4
Assignment: Sagan Chs. 13 & 22; Hines Ch. 3

Feb.8: Cults and Collective Delusions
Tu Note: Class discussion of Homework #4
Assignment: Hines Ch.12; catch-up on readings and work on flimflam analysis
Homework #4 (Selling Flimflam) Due

Part 3: Applications to Some Current Flimflam

Feb. 10: Consumer Schemes and Fraud
Th Assignment: catch-up on readings and work on flimflam analysis

Feb. 15: Preparation for Lecture day
Tu Class will meet informally to prepare for lecture; no formal class
Assignment: Catch-up on readings or go ahead; work on lecture and poster

Feb. 17: From the Stars: UFOs & Astrology
Th Assignment: Hines Chs. 7 & 8
Flimflam analysis due for students reading Sheaffer or Culver & Ianna

Feb. 22: Flimflam of the Past and Into the Future
Tu Assignment: Hines Ch. 9
Flimflam analysis due for students reading Stiebing or Randi

Feb. 24: Help Yourself (To Other People’s Money): Health & Mental Health Quackery
Th Assignment: Hines Ch. 5
Flimflam analysis due for students reading Barrett & Jarvis or Singer

Mar. 1: The Greatest Flimflam of All
Tu Assignment: Sagan Chs. 16 & 21

Part 4: What We Have Learned
Mar. 3: Preparation for Poster day
Th No class
Assignment: Work on poster project

Mar. 8: Poster Session
Tu Assignment: Sagan Chs. 14, 15, & 17

Mar. 10: Wonderment
Th Assignment: Sagan Chs. 23, 24, & 25

Courses Home