Please visit the new home of Majikthise at

« You're on, Bozo! | Main | Oprah proclaims Zulu ancestry after mDNA test »

June 16, 2005

ESP "most popular" paranormal belief

Grrrrr. Notice this isn't getting categorized anywhere near "Science."


PRINCETON, NJ -- About three in four Americans profess at least one paranormal belief, according to a recent Gallup survey. The most popular is extrasensory perception (ESP), mentioned by 41%, followed closely by belief in haunted houses (37%).

Apparently 37% of Americans believe in haunted houses, but only 32% believe that "ghosts/that spirits of dead people can come back in certain places/situations"!

Only 27% of Americans espoused none of the 10 paranormal beliefs mentioned in the survey.

[Via NTodd.]


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference ESP "most popular" paranormal belief:

» STATIC IN THE ATTIC from Baboon Palace
I was trying to find some comparable statistics for Canada, and I came across this article about UFO sightings in British Columbia. Did you know that there are over 300 sightings here every single year? [Read More]

» When Ghosts Attack from Scottish Nous
I came home last night to find my roommate watching typical late night local television station fare in the form of Unexplained Mysteries: When Ghosts Attack. [Read More]


I notice they don't list speaking in tongues, healing through prayer, or demonic possession. I'd have thought those would rank pretty high in number of believers.

Shhh Andrew! We call those "religious beliefs". Paranormal would be more like believing a woman could have a child back 2000 years ago with no man involved, and the child is expected to reappear at any time now.

Gallup's own summary of the poll (, also linked to by Lindsay under "Grrrrr") is really worth reading.

First of all, to Andrew C., Gallup did ask about things somewhat related to faith healing and demonic possession, but they didn't put that in their main analysis because as Gallup explains:

Three other items included in the survey, but which do not necessarily reflect paranormal beliefs, include beliefs in "psychic or spiritual healing or the power of the human mind to heal the body," "that people on earth are sometimes possessed by the devil," and "that extra-terrestrial beings have visited earth at some time in the past."

The healing powers of the mind have been demonstrated empirically, reflected in the power of placebos, among other examples. More than half of Americans, 55%, believe in this connection.

The poll shows that 42% of Americans believe that "people on this earth are sometimes possessed by the devil." However, it is unclear how many people treat that statement literally, and how many interpret it in metaphorical terms. Thus, for purposes of this analysis, that item was excluded.

Strictly speaking, visits from aliens are not part of paranormal beliefs. Although definitive scientific evidence of such visits is lacking, in principle the existence of extra-terrestrial beings and their ability to visit earth are subject to empirical verification.

But for me, the biggest potentially depressing thing in Gallup's summary is this quote:

The poll shows no statistically significant differences among people by age, gender, education, race, and region of the country. [Emphasis mine.] Christians are a little more likely to hold some paranormal beliefs than non-Christians (75% vs. 66%, respectively), but both groups show a sizeable majority with such beliefs.

Is it possible receiving higher education here in the good ol' US of A makes no significant difference in belief in the paranormal? Or is the lack of statistical significance just a result of small sample size. Well, alas, Gallup's detailed demographic breakdown is for subscribers only. The free page linked to above merely says Gallup's sample size was 1002 adults. Given that the latest Census data (, Table 2) says 28.7% of all US citizens 25 or older have a Bachelor's Degree or higher, I'd estimate (to one significant figure) that that Gallup on average should have ended up polling roughly 300 people with a Bachelor's degree or higher in such a poll. Thus, I'd roughly estimate that the statement there was no statistically significant differences with respect to education means differences between the non-college group and the Bachelor's-and-higher group were no larger than 20 percentage points or so, assuming they were going for 95% confidence intervals to declare statistical significance. (Again, only working to one significant figure... it's a loose upper bound).

So, yeah, given this rough analysis I'm kind of depressed. I'd have hoped higher education in the good ol' US of A would have helped significantly more than 20 percentage points.

Brian Josephson believes in ESP and he is a) a Nobel prizewinning physicist and b) Welsh so that's good enough for me.

It's not exactly the end of the world to believe in haunted houses. After all, what effect does it have on someone? Other than a desire to have proof, or to avoid a house rumoured as haunted.

And I suppose they could believe that haunted houses are caused by something other than the spirits of dead humans, ie...uh....fairies? Goblins? Ley lines? Aliens? ;)

Why GRRR? Isn't this merely evidence that people who don't know very much about a subject don't necessarily believe everything they're told by the experts?

It would be very nice to believe in ESP, just as it would be very nice to believe in the afterlife and the benevolent intentions of all politicians.

I believe in witches just not their powers (you want to call yourself a witch, *poof* you're a witch). Does the wording of the poll question distinguish between the two?

It's not exactly the end of the world to believe in haunted houses. After all, what effect does it have on someone? Other than a desire to have proof, or to avoid a house rumoured as haunted.

You're right of course. It isn't the end of the world but I don't agree that it is as harmless as you think. The problem isn't with the belief itself but that such a belief is symptomatic of a world view which tends to devalue empricism and rationality. The societal consequences of that devaluation, especially when shared by a majority of the population, are quite wide ranging. It is why, for instance, the Bush administration can so blithely treat the scientific evidence which contradicts their policy goals with utter contempt.

On the flip side, if we were all more skeptical, all more analytical and all took the time to know and understood more about the physical world we live in, people like Terry Jefferey would just be two bit con men constantly one step ahead of the law.

Belief in the supernatural leads down all sorts of wrong and dangerous paths.

This is what really bothered me:

Apparently 37% of Americans believe in haunted houses, but only 32% believe that "ghosts/that spirits of dead people can come back in certain places/situations"!

5% of the population believe that houses can be haunted, but not that the ghosts of dead people can come back under any circumstances.

27% Reality-based. Sounds about right.

This is a testament to the decency of people.

If there were enough swindlers, all of these fools would be reduced to bankruptcy in a few months. There just aren't that many people willing to engage in the almost risk-free white collar crime that can take every penny these fools have. Think about it. We are talking about tens of trillions of dollars there for the taking. All you have to do is pick up the phone and ask for it in a slightly tricky way, and these people will fork it over. And yet, only tens of billions are stolen like this each year. I find it comforting in a tearing-out-my-hair kind of way.

Hey, William Kaminsky, why expect anything more from people who cruised through a 3- or 4-year initiation rite that requires nothing more than being at least occasionally awake and sober? In their desperation to attract more students so they can justify their existence to cost-cutting administrators, lots of humanities departments have a nudge-and-wink arrangement whereby any student who writes the tests and essays can expect to pass with at least a C average. No intellectual powers are required.

Lindsay: The 5% are obviously referring to houses that are legally haunted, Nyack-style.

I was hoping that the "most popular" paranormal belief was the one that was most liked, not the one that was most widely held. My favorite paranormal belief is that humans are descended from space aliens. I don't hold that belief. I just like it.

"Hey, William Kaminsky, why expect anything more from people who cruised through a 3- or 4-year initiation rite that requires nothing more than being at least occasionally awake and sober? "

It's even worse. A lot of looney ideas are popularised at college. This isn't just done by students. I had an old friend who learned "The 100th monkey theory" from one of his law professors at the University of Chicago. It lowered my esteem of that institution considerably until I considered that the prof might have been using it as a diagnostic tool to see which of his students were clever idiots.

I don't know if this should be a called a paranormal belief, a family of paranormal beliefs, extreme revisionist history, or what, but it's my favorite: David Icke's theory that>giant lizards rule the earth.

Belief in ESP is very much a problem--it not only separates people from their cash, it wastes the time of police departments who are pressured into hiring "psychics" to solve crimes, and it creates situations where frauds manipulate the grief-stricken by feeding them lies about recently passed family members that can cause the grief process to drag on and be worse. Just the first two off of my head to start with.

This might not count, but my favorite paranormal belief is that there exists a God who created pygmies and dwarves to demonstrate that people in the Biblical era must of course have been giants. From logic!

Or at least, that's been my favorite one for a couple days...

There are limits to the effectiveness of education.

The 37% (believe in haunted houses) vs. 32% (believe in ghosts of dead people) would presumably mean that, *at minimum*, 5% believe the former but not the later. The 32% might not be wholly a subset of the 37%.

As for someone who believes in haunted houses but not ghosts of the dead, what explanation do they give for how a house could be haunted? Evil spirits? Maybe they believe in ghosts that aren't ghosts of dead people, but rather originate from some other source. I just don't know the RULES about ghosts.

Anyone that believes in ghosts care to enlighten??

The 32% vs. 37% problem just means that some people think houses can be haunted by things other than the spirits of dead people, which doesn't seem too odd to me. At least, not too odd given the assumption that there's a whole nether world of spooks, ghosts, ghouls, ectoplasm, demons, spirits, and all the rest.

See, this is the problem with the analytic/synthetic distinction. It seems like "haunted" means "inhabited by ghosts." Spirits and spooks are ghosts. Ghouls are a slightly different metaphysical category, I guess. But demons don't haunt things, they possess things. If your house is infected with non-dead-related evil, it's cursed, but it's not haunted.

Like Alex, I don't really know the rules.

Lindsay - I see your point. I think the solution to the problem may not be in subtle distinctions between haunted and cursed (or possessed), but rather in the fact that most people don't bother to really understand the question before responding.

A similar phenomenon is behind the most charitable explanation of a lot of blogospherian outrage over things like Durbin's comments. If you don't pay attention to every word you could easily fixate on the mention of Nazis and come away with the impression that Durbin compared US troops to Nazis.

A charitable explanatory filter for reading high outrage blog posts (I try to use it, but often fail) is to ascribe inaccurate readings to
(1) carelessness
(2) laziness
(3) stupidity
(4) mendacity that order.

Well said Andrew.

The comments to this entry are closed.