The results of the 2018 Chapman University survey of American Fears have been released and they suggest that America (that is, even well-educated America) is even more accepting of the paranormal than in the past three years. You can view the entire survey here but let me highlight the major points as well as some possible explanations for the numbers and some problems with applying them.
The survey asked a wider variety of questions about fears but I’m most interested in the paranormal subject areas. The following graphic shows the percentage of belief by subject. Between June 25 and July 10, 2018, a total of 1190 respondents replied to indicate their agreement with a belief statement on a scale from strongly agree down to strongly disagree. These percentages show either “strongly agree” or “agree”, or a positive belief statement.
Note there is no “undecided” option in this poll. You need to commit to agree or disagree. I suspect people might conflate “agree” with “interested in” the topic. When pressed, especially in person, I’m not sure quite as many people would place a bet on that belief being true. They may just enjoy believing for the fun of it. But percentages certainly show the public is open to accepting the paranormal.
Every category went up in percentage from the last two years with the exception of “seeing the future”. Unfortunately, delivery of these results is muddled by a major mistake in the graphic shown above. The table of results in the report clearly show “seeing the future” belief is 17% while Bigfoot higher at 21%. Bigfoot was the lowest on last year’s graph at 16% but it doesn’t deserve that spot this year. Because most people will just look at or pass around the graphic, this is a pretty egregious mistake and makes me wonder why there was no proofing or review of this report. There are also some typing errors throughout. For a product that gets considerable media traction, this is sloppy handling – a reminder to never trust what you are provided in media bites. Check the work. It’s so often wrong in some way.
The overarching conclusion is that America is becoming more paranormally-inclined. The paranormal is normal; the stigma about it has lessened. This is mostly due to saturation in media which, in turn, means we discuss it more and it gains social standing. We get most of our information from popular media and from each other. If the climate of the culture is accepting of paranormal experiences and themes, more people will share their own stories and opinions about them.
Belief in ghosts and hauntings is up from last year. From 2016 to 2018, belief in hauntings went up 18% points from 40-58%. Last year, the top category in percentage was about “ancient, advanced civilizations”. When that latter category topped the poll last year, many were surprised. Why that subject? Belief in ancient civilizations such as Atlantis skyrocketed from 27% to 41% from 2016 to 2018 – a gain of 14%. While belief in ghosts has been fairly stable over time, connected to age-old ideas about life after death, the idea of Atlantis and civilizations lost to the sea or hidden elsewhere have no basis in evidence and has long been seen as a myth. Such ideas have significant evidence that to support why they are historically discounted and geologically untenable. Why has the subject become so popular now? Let’s call it the “Bad History/Ancient Aliens effect”. The History Channel and other cable “educational”-styled TV channels struck gold in speculative pseudoscience programming. Riding the wave of reality paranormal TV has been documentary-style shows featuring fringe archaeology claims. Non-academic amateurs appeal directly to the public using trendy themes of hidden information, religious myths, anti-authoritarianism (conspiracies run by the government and scientists) and racism. By appearing scientifical, they are convincing to the public. (Interested in this history of Spooky Archaeology? Check out this new book.) Faced with considerable media products promoting fringe claims, the average person is influenced by the normalization of these ideas. For that person, it is rational to be open to the idea since society seems to be heading that direction. The ideas themselves remain unscientific but we can not fault the individual for going along with the growing mainstream acceptance and being affected by the information shared by people around them.
Aliens remain a hot topic, but there’s a twist. More people think aliens visited in the past but not as much in the present. Again, it’s the “ancient aliens” effect thanks to the extremely popular TV show suggesting humans needed help from outside to culturally (and perhaps biologically) evolve. The ancient aliens idea is just one thread in the thinking about UFOs and the ET hypothesis (which also fueled a plague of other bizarre and often racist pseudoscientific claims) but it’s a repackaging of the previously trendy “ancient astronaut” ideas from the 70s. Over the past 3 years, this ancient alien belief rose from 27% to 41% where modern alien visits only went from 25 to 35%. With an error margin of 3%, this is not a big difference but may to be tied to the data showing that people don’t report as many UFOs these days.
Associated with widespread belief about aliens is the sentiment that there is a coverup of this information. 50% of the respondents felt that the government knows more than it’s telling about aliens. Because of the personal interpretation of individual questions and how people feel like responding to each in the moment, the outcomes do not always appear to be logically consistent. You can’t get nuance about a complicated personal worldview with Likert scale questions. There is a backstory to why each individual answered the way they did and we just don’t know that. Surveys are only a broad-brush measurement.
Psychic powers are convincing to about 17%-26% of the population. This is a bit lower than I would guess but the antics of celebrity so-called psychic divas like Theresa Caputo or Uri Geller or utter failures like Sylvia Brown have done nothing to enhance the reputation of the “skill”. There have not been major news items or popular movies or TV content promoting psychics. When news reports ramp up for these topics – as they have for claims of alien technology, sensational archaeology finds, and ghost sightings, this invokes a tendency for the public to think there is “something to it”. Of course, the clicks on these garbage news stories snowball into producing more of the same and the media behavior perpetuates the popularity. The availability heuristic is also likely to play a role. Regarding the results for the other fear questions, the researchers noted that they answers may have been affected by a spate of news reports on a subject. If the paranormal topic is prevalent in public, such as around Halloween, you likely will get a result skewed higher because the topic is readily available in people’s memory.
Bigfoot has been in the news lately as the subject of lawsuits to recognize it as real. There has been a slow but steady growth in Bigfoot belief from 2016 – 14% to 16% to now 21%. It took a while for people to catch on but 20% is a good benchmark. Bigfoot as an iconic American monster is nothing to scoff at. With several TV shows also promoting those who believe in Bigfoot, it is unsurprising that the percentages are growing. We are still seeing the repercussions of dozens of ghost reality TV shows in these survey results. Ghost Hunters became a household word and similar groups undoubtedly exist in your locale. It’s a small step to greater acceptance when so many people you know are out looking for ghosts, Bigfoot or UFOs.
Still, 24% of the population express no belief in any of these paranormal topics. This is close to the value of those who hold no religious beliefs – or what some might call Skeptics. The rest of the population – a whopping 76% – hold at least one of these beliefs. 12% of the respondents expressed belief in all of them, and probably additional ones not named. A high number of respondents (around 60%) said they believed in the real Satan/Devil or demons (but a much lesser percentage are actually afraid of him/them). 13% of the respondents maintained a literal interpretation of the Bible.
Along with the wording of the questions, the method of delivering the survey will inadvertently skew the audience demographics. In this case, it was a self-administered web survey. That method skews the population towards a higher income grade and higher education levels, and away from older respondents. In fact, the reported results showed that 54% of the respondents were under 50 years old. Several sets of surveys have shown that paranormal beliefs decline with age, particularly past 50 years of age. We become more discerning in our old age, unsurprisingly. But education level does not have much of an effect on belief. Throw out the erroneous idea that only stupid people believe in these things. It isn’t nearly so simple.
Based on my observation of paranormal-themed content from news sources, the internet, movies, books, and television, as well as the growth of the community of paranormal investigators, American society is finding great personal value in paranormal belief. Conspiratorial thinking and anti-authoritarian sentiment are also prevalent. Debunking may not do much of anything to curtail it and nothing will make it disappear entirely or even make it rare. Only widespread social change does that. These trends go up and down depending on what’s in the media and what is considered normal in the culture. There are fads that wax and wane. Sure, it’s concerning that the average person may not be thinking all that critically about the evidence presented for these topics but their popularity allows plenty of opportunities for critical commentators to discuss why the latest Bigfoot video is faked or that the To the Stars Academy promises are paper thin. When attention is raised on the topic, all views can get lifted up with the tide.
A substantial percentage of people will believe in weird things. I don’t feel that disheartened by it. It’s a waste of time to aim to convince the true believers their pet belief isn’t valid but using these topics to illuminate social processes and to teach about evaluating evidence, especially with kids and college-aged adults, is a very worthwhile effort and a golden opportunity to pique their interest. Now is a great time to have an abiding interest in the paranormal. You’ll have a lot of company.