Human beings are, in general, a superstitious lot. Our tendency to see patterns where they don’t exist, and to falsely apply cause to effect, may have helped keep us alive back when we were little more than a band of frightened critters scurrying about the savanna. Those tendencies linger to the present day, reflected in our stubborn belief in completely irrational things: Rabbit’s feet. Horoscopes. A return to the gold standard.
The Chapman Survey on American Fears, a comprehensive study of the fears, phobias and irrational beliefs of the American people, was released this week and contains an interesting section on belief in the paranormal. The results are drawn from a nationally representative sample of 2,500 American adults.
It finds that belief in certain paranormal phenomenon — like influencing the world with physical thought, and foretelling the future with dreams — are fairly widespread. On the other hand, few Americans actually believe in astrology.
It’s instructive to compare Americans’ belief in the paranormal with their understanding of scientific knowledge. For instance, a 2014 AP poll found that 51 percent of Americans said they were confident that childhood vaccines are safe and effective. This is roughly the same proportion of Americans who believe houses or rooms can be haunted by spirits.
Slightly more than 40 percent of Americans believe in UFOs. This is considerably higher than the share of Americans who are confident that global warming is real, that life evolved through natural selection, or that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old.
About as many Americans say they believe in Bigfoot as say they’re confident that the universe began with a big bang.
The Chapman authors provided breakdowns by party affiliation. In general, Democrats were slightly and in some cases significantly more likely than Republicans to believe in paranormal phenomena: 75.6 percent of Democrats agreed that positive thoughts could influence the physical world, compared to 68.6 percent of Republicans.
Democrats were significantly more likely than Republicans to believe in fortune telling, and about twice as likely to believe in astrology.
On the other hand, Republicans were significantly more likely to say that Satan causes most evil in the world, a reflection of the higher degree of religiosity in the Republican party.
There were no significant partisan differences on belief in Atlantis, UFOs or Bigfoot.