This past week, two sets of survey results came out in regard to belief in questionable, and scientifically undetermined, entities. Both opinion polls appear to show high rates of belief in ghosts, the devil, aliens, and several cryptids. Let’s take a closer look at what’s happening here.

RealClear poll is not perfectly clear

The opinion research organization RealClear Opinion Research published results of a poll of 1000 Americans, where the pollsters asked about religious views. You can see the breakdown here. It was a fair poll, but note that the context framing was “religion”. I suspect people are more generous in expressing their religious beliefs than belief in the paranormal (though the stigma is much less now). Here are some general results:

In response to the question, “Please indicate for each one if you believe in it or not.”

Ghosts – 61% yes
Aliens – 57% yes
Devil – 70% yes

None of the results are very surprising, even though they might concern critical thinkers, scientists, and atheists. I’ve been tracking ghost belief since surveys of 2003. The results fluctuate from year to year, almost certainly due to cultural factors, including what’s disseminated in the news and popular media offerings. This is the highest ghost belief result I’ve seen in a representative poll. But note that 2008 was the next highest at 57% followed by a low in 2009 (18-33%). I don’t think this means a lot and you’ll see why in a bit.

There is no shortage of supposedly nonfictional depictions of ghosts and demons in visual media. And, aliens have been all the rage for a few years now. That topic exploded in popularity after it appeared to be dying out around 2017. You just never know what is going to suddenly surge in pop culture.

That brings me to the next set of results that relate to cryptids.

Cryptid communication poll

This survey came out in a paper published in the International Journal of Communication 18(2024) titled “Cryptid Communication: Media Messages and Public Beliefs about Cryptozoology” by Dawson, Brewer, and Cuddy. The research goal of this paper was to examine some of the effects of media messaging on belief in cryptids, which is a highly complex situation that may not ever be well understood.

What is “belief”? Each person has different stages of, criteria for, and reasons for “belief”. Because of those reason, these opinion surveys results are squishy and not very useful.

Feel free to read the entire study for yourself – it has other issues that make it a bit weak. But, I’m just going to focus on the survey results they published as part of their experiments.

Belief in cryptids was measured by asking respondents whether they strongly believed, believed, disbelieved, or strongly disbelieved the following statements:

“Bigfoot is a real creature” (12% strongly believed, 34% believed, 35% disbelieved, and 20% strongly disbelieved),
“Mermaids are real” (11%, 22%, 42%, and 25%, respectively),
“The Yeti, also known as the abominable snowman, is real” (12%, 29%, 39%, and 20%, respectively), and

“The Loch Ness Monster is a real creature” (10%, 31%, 39%, and 20%, respectively).

Combining the two “yes” categories and the two “no” categories (ignore rounding errors), we have this:

TopicBelief %Nonbelief %
Bigfoot4655
Mermaids3367
Yeti4159
Loch Ness Monster4159

Does this fairly translate to: “Look how many people believe in Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster!”. I would not go that far. The “strong belief” is only 10-12% for each cryptid. This correlates to previous surveys about belief in Bigfoot as “real” that ranged from 16-20% and likely reflects the portion of the population who deeply believes in these concepts.

Perhaps the moderate “belief” value (of around 30%) is reflective of people casually playing around with the idea, those who want it to be true, or those just having fun with it without any consideration of evidence.

There are countless other factors that influence how respondents might answer the question about “belief” and reality. One example is that mermaids are very much a cultural belief in other countries, where they are magical creatures. Another example may be if a person had an experience that they interpreted as a Bigfoot. It could have been a bear, but witnesses may be very much affected by the idea they encountered Bigfoot, and it bolsters their belief.

This study also included a second part that brought Mothman and megalodon into the discussion.

Belief in cryptids was measured by asking respondents whether they believed Bigfoot (42% yes), “the Mothman creature” (13% yes), and “the megalodon shark” (45% yes) “may currently exist.”

Megalodon is a long-extinct, super-sized shark. While many people claim it still lives in our oceans, it most certainly does not. But the fact that it was a genuine, real animal means that it feels more likely it still could be out there. (Most people don’t have any sense of the timescale when they lived and died out.) Again, we may be dealing with an effect from the availability heuristic – people have a good idea of what a giant shark would be like in modern times because we’ve seen so many real and realistic depictions of sharks.

Mothman is by far the most unrealistic of all these cryptids in the study. It doesn’t resemble any known zoological animal and, from its origin, has supernatural connotations. Even though it’s a popular cryptid, it’s not a realistic one. That mothman has the lowest level of belief is unsurprising.

Beware of opinion surveys

Belief opinion surveys are so messy. Even if the questions are phrased precisely so that every respondent is clear about how to respond, people’s opinions are messy, culture changes across area and time, and we use our own conceptions of the world to make personal sense of it. This is all reflected in each person’s individual response. We also don’t know how truthfully they responded, or if they might change their answer tomorrow. Finally, it’s a huge mistake to infer that a high rate of “belief” means a greater likelihood that the cryptid is “real”. That’s a serious logical error we should all be careful we don’t make.

Is the US population slipping into greater acceptance of magical thinking because a poll showed high results? These are strange times, but society is way more complicated than that. In fact, beware of all opinion surveys.

5 thoughts on “What’s with these latest opinion polls on ghosts and cryptids?

  1. I must confess I was a little gobsmacked by the belief in mermaids. Could it be the influence of the Aquaman movies? 😊

      1. @sharona What I don't get is why they're always portrayed with scaly fish tails instead of, you know, mammalian tails. It would make them more plausible, since we know mammals can evolve that way.

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