We Want to Believe

This post is Part 1 in a series of posts investigating the traits of people who believe in the paranormal.

Part 1: We Want to Believe
Part 2: Who Wears Tinfoil Hats?
Part 3: Spirituality and a Belief in the Paranormal
Part 4: Traits of the Skeptic
Part 5: The Politics of Paranormal

Part 1: We Want to Believe

Paranormal: adjective; denoting events or phenomena that are beyond the scope of normal understanding

We are living in a golden age of science, but the popularity of programs like Stranger ThingsGhost Hunters, and The X-Files shows our culture still has an appetite for the distinctly unscientific. Moreover, recent polls indicate that many Americans believe paranormal phenomena are real, rather than purely fictional elements of entertainment. Choosing from a selection of common supernatural beliefs, 85% of SameGrain users declared a belief in at least one (the full results are shown in the figure below). The most popular belief is in angels, with ghosts, alternate universes, alien visits, and psychics rounding out the top 5.

Figure: Percent of SameGrain users who hold each paranormal belief.

This month, online "news" aggregator Paranormal News has featured stories about alien abductions at Area 51, a new home video of the Jersey Devil, and a zombie living in Florida. Readers can browse stories on more than 50 different topics ranging from animal mutilations and time travel to reincarnation and witchcraft.

I find it interesting that the website's editors (and presumably its readers) find all these topics related. To me, this suggests that some people don't just have one or two paranormal beliefs, but rather have a proclivity for all things paranormal. Indeed, this trend is born out in the data: if someone has one supernatural belief, they are more likely to have others as well. For example, people who believe in ghosts are more likely to also believe in angels, psychics, zombies, and all other paranormal phenomena SameGrain polled. The figure below shows the difference between the rate of belief for all users (green) and those who believe in ghosts (orange).

Figure: Percent of all SameGrain users (green) and those who believe in ghosts (orange) who hold each paranormal belief. The difference between the percent who believe is shown at the end of the bar (orange minus green).

Notice that people who believe in ghosts are more likely to believe in all other paranormal phenomena as well. Among the biggest differences between all users and those who believe in ghosts is the percentage who believe in psychics, alien visits, or alternate universes. Said another way, if someone believes in ghosts, they are much more likely to also believe in psychics, aliens, or alternate universes. The reverse is also true - someone who does not believe in ghosts is much less likely to believe in psychics or aliens. In statistics, we say that these beliefs are correlatedmeaning that one is predictive of the other. The plot below shows the amount of correlation we find between each pair of paranormal beliefs. Green means the answers are highly correlated such that a person who has one belief is more likely to have the other belief. Red would indicate that the two beliefs are anti-correlated, i.e., someone who has one belief is less likely to have the other. Note that all beliefs are correlated (green), some more than others.

Of special note is that some beliefs form correlated groups. All of the "monsters" - zombies, vampires, werewolves, and (to a lesser extent) Big Foot - are highly correlated with each other. This means that people who believe in one monster tend to believe in all of them. Indeed, people who believe in zombies are more than 10 times more likely to believe in Big Foot, vampires, or werewolves. In the chart you can also identify a group that includes the pseudo-scientific phenomena of time travel, alternate universes, and alien visits. Ghosts and psychics form a correlated pair as well.

You can find people like you - including those with the same paranormal beliefs - on SameGrain.