A psychological study of New Age practices and beliefs
This thesis consists of a study of the motivational, cognitive and personality implications of adherence to New Age practices and beliefs. The New Age, unlike traditional Western religion, possesses no church-like structure and is usually characterised as a loose network of self-development practices, with a belief system centred on the spiritual evolution of the individual through successive reincarnations and the idea of a magical interconnectedness between all things. The studies carried out used a series of psychological measures, including self-report scales, analysis of self-concepts, autobiographical episodes and attributions to life events, and experimental visual and semantic tasks. Groups of traditional religious and non-religious individuals were also assessed to serve as contrasts to the New Age group. Following from previous sociological literature on the individualist character of the New Age, the first study dealt with individualist and collectivist motivations. New Age individuals were found to emphasise more individualistic values than Catholics, but still differed from non-religious individuals in that they stressed more self-transcendent universalism values and global-holistic self-concepts. This pattern was labelled as 'holistic individualism' and the second study sought to define it more accurately by focusing on the analysis of agency and communion motivations through the analysis of autobiographical episodes. In this study, the New Age group showed a higher frequency of agency and a lower frequency of communion themes than traditional religious and non-religious participants and, in particular, emphasised life stories of self-empowerment by non-material 'energies' or entities. The last two studies looked more closely at the New Age tendency towards highly abstract cognitions, in particular its sense of connectedness, by focusing on magical thinking and personality traits. New Age individuals were found to attribute events to magical rather than naturalistic causes much more often than the other groups. This cognitive disposition was confirmed in the last study, which found a positive association between the adherence to New Age practices and schizotypal personality traits, emotional hypersensitivity, and cognitive-perceptual looseness. Women were also found to be keener adherents to the New Age than men. Given this set of results, it is suggested that the New Age should be thought of primarily as a magical, rather than a religious, system of practices and beliefs. It is also proposed that an individual may be drawn to the New Age not only because of its modern individualistic appeal, but in virtue of possessing a particular personality and cognitive disposition towards magical ideation and unusual perceptual experiences.