I collected survey results regarding belief in ghosts beginning around 2010 when I was working on my thesis that eventually became Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers. Whenever new poll results come up, I add them to my table. The percentage of Americans who respond “yes” to “Do you believe in ghosts?” varies a lot. I’d argue that you can’t conclude that belief in supernatural beings has gone up (as most people assume) in the past 20 years because the survey results are all over the place. Take a look:
Let me clarify a few things to be transparent about what these values actually represent.
Bias: All surveys are not the same
I only used decent polling sources in the list. I didn’t use any volunteer polls on websites or ones that are done by entertainment marketing staff to drum up support for their latest paranormal TV series, event, or movie. Those are clearly biased. But the surveys above are also biased. Almost all surveys are biased because they aren’t truly representative of the diverse American population. Some factors that affect belief in paranormal themes include age, education, religiosity/spirituality, and exposure to and/or interest in these themes in information and media.
There are also possibly endless factors that affect how people answer the questions presented to them in a survey. They include mood, personality, comprehension skill, attention span, native language, fatigue, hearing ability, etc. These secondary personal factors of the respondent, we might assume, are problems for every survey so that might balance out.
Comparing results over time
Looking at the range of percentages over 20 years in the table above, there is no pattern. Assuming the results are valid, there is no trend up or down.
I suspect that we are seeing the very high and very low values as representations of certain groups with collective values that reflect high or low belief in the paranormal. Some evidence for this is revealed for the 2023 results detailed below.
Alternatively, the results could be a reflection of what was going on in the culture at that very specific time (week or month of the polling) – maybe it was near Halloween. Perhaps media content or a news event came out near that time that influenced the answers. We could never be sure because the probing questions weren’t asked to make those connections.
We also must consider how the questions were framed – it could be that they were confusing or guided the respondent towards a certain answer.
The skewed population (2023)
The latest poll, by AP-NORC, came out in news headlines as touting the high rate of belief in angels.
When I looked closer, with the help of some other critical thinkers, I found this survey was equally about political views as well as belief. And, there was a question about ghosts, as well as other entities, so I was able to add these result to my list.
In order to make sense out of any one survey, you have to look at details. A link to the survey report is often include in any press releases, so you can read the exact questions and view the tabulated results. You can also see if the news report on the survey made errors in interpretation or grouped “somewhat” and “strongly” responses together to make the cumulative “yes” result, which is dodgy.
The May 2023 AP-NORC poll of 1,680 adults was designed to be representative of the US population, but the sample was drawn from the AmeriSpeak Panel, which was specifically created to target the moderate-conservative population. The poll results reveal that 78% of the respondents identified as Moderate or Conservative. That shines some light on the high belief results. Had it been a more liberal/less religious cohort that was polled, we would expect the belief in supernatural beings of all kinds to be lower.
Results are an illusion
Overall, we must use restraint in using these poll-based belief numbers. We may be looking at very different scenarios that produced each result. It’s most interesting to compare two polls in the same year or the same poll over several years. That occurs in the above table (though I haven’t reviewed the question to see if they were exactly the same). But it’s still inconsistent.
With this many examples, however, we can say that there certainly isn’t a significant increase (or decrease) in ghost belief across the two decades.
It’s true that a significant proportion of Americans believe in spirits, angels, God and the devil. It’s fair to say that, in the U.S, it’s around 45%. That’s still high, considering that, after two centuries of effort, we still have no reliable evidence of their reality.
The lesson here is: be wary of survey results. They might be just a fleeting apparition that reflects a specific moment.
For more on paranormal surveys, see Believers are the Majority (2018) also on this website.