For our new book on cryptozoology, Daniel Loxton and I delved deeply into the psychology of those who believe in Bigfoot and Nessie and the rest. What about these people who believe in cryptids? What can we say beyond the anecdotal descriptions of the Bigfoot subculture that I discussed in my August 28 post? There are actually large-scale rigorous studies that have been done to see what the population as a whole, and what kinds of people in particular, think about paranormal topics. The most famous is the Baylor Religious Survey, a huge data set of multiple choice questions collected almost each year since 2005, which looks not only at beliefs, but also at the demographic data behind them. If you look for the questions that mention cryptids like Nessie and Bigfoot, you can get a sense of how widely these ideas are held in the sample of hundreds of people included in the survey. For example, about 17% of the people in the sample agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “Creatures such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster will one day be discovered by science,” while about 56% disagreed or strongly disagreed (27% were undecided). About 20% said “yes” to the question: Have you ever read a book, consulted a Web site, or researched the following topics: Mysterious animals, such as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster? The highest percentage of those people who agreed with cryptozoological ideas were young (18-30) single white males with only a high-school education or less, lower incomes, but who do not tend to be very religious, either.
In their book Paranormal America, Bader et al. (2011) point out that belief in the paranormal is held by about two-thirds of Americans, and the average American holds at least two paranormal ideas to be true. In other words, most Americans believe in the paranormal, making it the norm in our culture. The skeptics and non-believers are the minority, the “abnormal ones”.
These beliefs in Bigfoot or Nessie are also strongly correlated with acceptance of other paranormal ideas, like UFOs, psychics, Atlantis, ghosts, and so on. Those least likely to accept paranormal ideas tend to be better educated (the more education, the more skeptical they are), and more often non-religious, Jewish or mainstream Christians. Among gender differences, women tend to be more accepting of mediums and attempts to communicate with the dead, while men tend to more likely to believe in Bigfoot or Nessie. “Women tend to want to improve themselves, to become better people,” said Bader, who is also a director of the Association for Religion Data Archives. “Men tend to want to go out and capture something, to prove it’s real.” According to Bader et al.:
• Belief in Bigfoot, ghosts, psychic abilities and other paranormal phenomena declines noticeably with increases in age and income.
• Unmarried and cohabiting individuals are far more likely to embrace the paranormal. Asked whether they have had any of five paranormal experiences from witnessing a UFO to contacting spirits, the typical unmarried respondent claimed close to two experiences, while the average married respondent had no paranormal experiences.
• Republicans are “significantly less interested” in the paranormal than Democrats or independents.
Overall, the researchers said, conventional lifestyles and stakes in conformity are strong predictors of paranormal beliefs, with highly unconventional people the most likely to turn to otherworldly possibilities beyond the realm of traditional religion”.
In an interview connected with the publication of Paranormal America, co-author F. Carson Mencken said:
Two thirds of Americans have at least one paranormal belief. We argue in our book that two factors drive paranormal belief and research: enlightenment and discovery. In terms of sociological theories, we use Hirschi’s social control approach in conjunction with Stark and Bainbridge’s work on religious compensators to explain how discovery and enlightenment would lead the disconnected to unconventional beliefs. Those who have strong bonds to society (people in power, high status careers, structural positions of authority and responsibility) are highly conventional in their lifestyles. It is an expected (i.e. normative) pattern. One aspect of living a conventional lifestyle is to believe and practice conventional beliefs/rituals (i.e. Christianity, Judaism in the United States). When someone who is expected to live a conventional lifestyle strays from expected (i.e. normative) behavior patterns, they risk sanctions (as Nancy Reagan did with her use of astrology in the White House). Those who are less connected to society, which may represent the poor, uneducated on one end, and the hyper-educated, non-conformist types on the other end, do not risk the same sanctions by pursuing alternative belief systems. But this in and of itself is not enough to spur people to the paranormal. There has to be a reason why people will seek alternative belief systems. One theory which applies to those of lower socioeconomic status is religious compensators. Since conventional religiosity is for and run by highly conventional people and provides many empirical rewards for this group, those from lower socioeconomic status groups will not gain many spiritual or conventional rewards from participating in conventional religion. Alternative beliefs systems can be empowering. The discovery of something spiritually unique (an unknown secret to the universe) that the rest of society does not have gives those from excluded groups a sense of purpose, a status as someone important. Moreover, all humans are seeking enlightenment and discovery. New information helps us to reduce risk in our lives, and to make better informed decisions. Many paranormal practices (psychics, mediums, communication with the dead, astrology, etc.) are about giving people an insight into their future. Those groups not bound to conventional religious systems are freer to explore these alternative systems in order to gain information that may help them improve their lives.
That is the burden that skeptics face. It’s HARD to be a skeptic, and force yourself not to fall into the traps that our brains are so easily fooled by. And if it was not already apparent to skeptics, the world is full of believers in all sorts of phenomena. Belief in the paranormal or UFOs is the norm, and we skeptics are the minority, the abnormal, the exception. If we want to change this and make our culture less credulous, we have a LOT of work to do.