SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

The Paranormal is Normal

by Donald Prothero, Nov 27 2013

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.


13 Responses to “The Paranormal is Normal”

  1. Woody says:

    The subject of belief in these things seemed more vaporous and ethereal when I was a kid. Do you believe in this? Or that? I liked the sound of some of it, the idea.
    Visiting alien spacecraft, with all sorts of in-built ‘advanced technology’ reasons why hard evidence of their reality isn’t ours … and their extra-terrestrialism, fascinating hey?
    Bigfoot and other hominid cryptids, supported entirely by anecdotes and the desire to believe.
    Then and now, I like the idea of this partially spiritual servant of the very soul of nature, resistant to discovery, as is proper … and all that dreamy untestable crap, I liked it.
    Nessie was the same, to still be properly discovered and described, it must be a natural but somehow still supernatural spirit of that land, tied in close with the ancient knowledge (assumptions and myths) of the land. My family is Scottish and I loved that partially magic claim.
    Skepticism only called to me so that I could read about some of the things I was feeling, written by someone who has considered these things and understood my feelings (Maybe describing them better than I ever had.)
    But as I looked into critical thinking I learned so much about humanity, why we believe the things we do, how our history and societal ways affect us and how it still impacts supposedly modern populations.
    Fraudulent healers, Media-driven crap, pseudo-medicines,
    the list goes on, these things often made me angry and I was shocked to learn more about how common and full of crap they are.
    It also taught me better about science, something that hadn’t really moved me in the past (apart from that gorgeous girl in science class!)
    The scientific method and its value to us, what we can learn, what we can know, how well designed and controlled testing has and will continue to help us in so many ways.
    Now I like that idea in a far more real and enthusiastic way than how I pondered old magical stories like Bigfoot and friends.
    I had to get all that out of my system, thanks for reading.

  2. Trimegistus says:

    Seems to me the main blame can be laid at the foot of mass media, which encourage and promote this kind of credulity. They are part of a vicious cycle: people believe this crap, which means that articles or stories about this crap are popular, which encourages people to believe this crap . . .

    You should be glad that the liberal political/media establishment hasn’t made Bigfoot one of their core beliefs, because otherwise you’d have to damn yourself as a “Cryptid denialist.”

  3. Oneyearmuse says:

    Whilst I agree that the much of the blame is down to today’s news media although I suspect most of it will be gutter press I’d be surprised if a newspaper like The Times would start printing stories about crop circles and ufos. The rest of it is websites, youtube, twitter etc. None of which can be controlled, that’s freedom of speech for you.

    Unfortunately a lot of this type of ‘crap’ barring Intelligent Design is down to entertaining the public and we do love a good show. I’ll leave those that need a mystical crutch to be happy out of the ‘crap’ because that’s a whole other ballgame entirely.

    I’d be intersted to see any studies with regard to the rest of the world, American despite what people may think isn’t the centre of everything.

  4. Daniel says:

    “If we want to change this and make our culture less credulous, we have a LOT of work to do.”

    One place to start would be to refrain from conflating skepticism with left-wing political and economic views. And if one going to go down that road, it isn’t too much to ask to pay more attention to the source materials, perhaps be open to admitting an error when a citation directly contradicts the point made.

  5. Oneyearmuse says:

    “…perhaps be open to admitting an error when a citation directly contradicts the point made.”

    The irony that the one constant in the universe is change (I’ll forget the speed of light for the moment) shows up greatly against the fact we as a species (especially on the political front) hate change. Perhaps hate is too stronger word, we prefer our status quo. Which really goes against all common sense considering the huge technology changes of the 20th Century.

    To create a less credulous culture you would require everyone becoming at least on the very basic level a scientist, someone who doesn’t change the evidence to suit their theory. This would require a significant change in the world’s methods of education, I cannot see that happening anytime soon.

    There is a definite gap between Scientists/Engineers and everyone else. Everyone else is only interested in the fact their smartphone works but not how it works. Okay maybe I’m generalising like I always do but when the death of a talking cartoon dog becomes a massive news story it is obvious that the average joe in the street is not interested in the facts.

    Should we stop trying to convert them to the common sense scientific method of course not! However I feel after reading a number of the articles on this site and comments that a little perspective is required. You all seem surprised that people would believe in, well anything without proper evidence.

    • Daniel says:

      I’m not talking about changing one’s views in light of new evidence, or being open generally to the idea that scientific consensus sometimes changes.

      It’s more basic. In an earlier post, an author argued that the US was woefully behind the rest of the world in scientific literacy, and that creationists and climate-deniers were to blame. The source that this writer linked to said the exact opposite, specifically, that the general public in the US was MORE scientifically literate than Western Europeans and Japanese people. Another commentator linked to additional studies that supported the finding that US citizens are generally more scientific literate, except in discrete areas such as evolution, which is kind a take or leave it proposition for religious and reasons.

      • Oneyearmuse says:

        Either you complaining about the author not reading his own link (very poor indeed) or that all studies cannot be right? Which is wrong of course they can be right just not necessarily true.

        Thing is you really need to into the detail of any these studies that make such grandiose and yet general claims. It is really how you word your questionnaires, like a magician forcing a card on you. Pick any card, you have free will honest!

        Who paid for these studies, follow the money? You just cannot take anything that general at face value.

    • Daniel says:


      I’m complaining about the author not reading what’s in his own link.

      Otherwise, I agree with your point that studies that purport to measure the general public’s scientific literacy, and the like, are not particularly useful. I really have no idea whether the US as a whole is more or less “scientifically literate”, what the reason for that is, and really whether it matters all that much. (You can be a fine electrician, but believe that ancient aliens built the pyramids).

      My problem is that this particular author makes grandiose sociological claims with total credulity, and then can’t even bother checking what the sources actually say, much less whether they’re particularly illuminating. It’s really the opposite of what I thought skeptical inquiry is all about, and it would lead someone without preconceived notions to conclude that the skeptical movement, for lack of a better term, is just a vehicle to peddle one’s political views.

  6. Oneyearmuse says:

    No argument with your last paragraph, to state it even more simply: Money Talks.

    “You can be a fine electrician, but believe that ancient aliens built the pyramids” – only if they employed him to fix the fuse box otherwise he might as well believe in the tooth fairy.

    The Truth has become an Urban Myth.

  7. Max says:

    “Those least likely to accept paranormal ideas tend to be… more often non-religious, Jewish or mainstream Christians.”

    Should that say “religious” instead of “non-religious,” since all the other quotes here say that non-religious people are more likely to accept paranormal ideas:

    “The highest percentage of those people who agreed with cryptozoological ideas… do not tend to be very religious, either.”

    “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 that last quote, I take it that conventional lifestyles are strong NEGATIVE predictors of paranormal beliefs.

  8. markx says:

    Sorry, this is WAY off topic:

    But someone sensible has to deal with this:

    “Leading geneticist Dr Eugene McCarthy claims humans descended from sex between a chimp and a pig” – I thought it was an erroneous headline but that seems to be the theory all right.

    This guy is an expert on hybridization.
    And can rave on in great detail about the technicalities of that subject.
    And seems to understand absolutely nothing about evolution and parallel evolution.

    Some of his ‘proof’ is the hairless skin of people and pigs, the “shared” large cartilaginous nose (??!) and “short fat digits”!!

    Bloody hell, ALL pigs have hair (including domestic breeds) and it is very different hair from humans. The pig’s cartilaginous nose is adapted for digging and is tremendously effective for that.
    And, digits?!! Pigs have hooves!

    I am not sure of the motivations here, and it may even be the case of a man so completely immersed in his subject that he does not even consider other science.

    Something very strange has happened here.

  9. Scott the Aussie (in Devon!) says:

    Or alternatively, he has just totally flipped!!