More Options

Cultural Indicators of the Paranormal

Science and the Media

Matt Nisbet

March 22, 2006

Scientists have long lamented the public’s persistent belief in the paranormal. In this area, recent Gallup polling shows both good news and bad news. Every few years since 1990 the survey organization has asked Americans whether they believe, don’t believe, or are not sure about a range of paranormal phenomena. The good news is that compared to 2001, fewer Americans say they believe in extra-sensory perception, fewer Americans say they believe in the ability to communicate with the dead, and fewer Americans say they believe that extra-terrestrials have visited the Earth. While the percentage believing in telepathy shows change that remains within the margin of error for the two surveys, the percentage saying they don’t believe in telepathy has increased. (See the figures at the end of this column.)

The bad news is that public belief in other forms of paranormal phenomena shows little or no significant change. Specifically, there remains relatively strong belief in psychic/spiritual healing (55% say they believe, 17% say they are unsure, and only 26% say they don’t believe), in devil possession (42%, 13%, and 44% across response categories), and in haunted houses (37%, 16%, and 46% respectively).

Tracking paranormal beliefs remains an uncertain business. Unlike major political issues, polling organizations rarely measure paranormal beliefs using exact question wording across years. The Gallup data remain the only consistently administered items that allow for historical analysis. Therefore, absent other poll items, it’s not possible to say with confidence whether the 2005 results are a blip or part of a real trend.

With this in mind, let’s assume for the moment that the observed changes relative to ESP, telepathy, spirit mediumship, and extra-terrestrials are indeed real. What could account for the small decline in these beliefs, but not in other beliefs such as devil possession, spiritual healing, or ghosts? These latter claims are strongly anchored in traditional Christian teachings, sustained by social structures that reinforce belief over time. In contrast, aliens, psychics, and spirit mediums are not as closely connected to the traditional religions. Instead, they are the paranormal topics that became media sensations in the late 1990s, only to decline in media prominence since 2001.

Take a look at figure 1. The graph plots the number of New York Times and Washington Post articles that contain in their headline or lead paragraph various key words specific to either UFOs or psychics/spirit mediums. The archives of these two papers provide a crude but easily accessible cultural barometer. By searching news items, features, and reviews, the two papers provide a rough guide to the relative prominence of these paranormal topics in popular culture.

Figure 1. Media Indicators Specific to Psychics and Aliens

figure 1

Note: Trends reflect the number of combined articles appearing annually in the New York Times and the Washington Post containing in the headline or lead paragraph the key words for psychic: “psychic” or “psychic medium” or “spirit medium” or “extrasensory perception,” or “ESP,” or the keywords for UFOs: “UFO” or “alien abduction” or “extraterrestrial.”

According to the data, cultural fascination with UFOs reached a historic peak in 1996, and remained at an all-time high in 1997. The trend was boosted by the fiftieth anniversary of the alleged UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico, and the popularity of entertainment products such as Independence Day and The X-Files. However, attention to aliens plummeted in 1999, and has yet to recover significantly. (For more background, see this 2002 column I wrote for American Prospect online).

Media fascination with psychics follows a similar trend. This topic peaked in popular culture at a historic high in 1999 and 2000, and then sharply declined in 2001. As I have described in previous columns (here and here), the terrorist attacks that year had a sobering effect on the American media. The events temporarily shifted journalists away from soft news topics like psychics and back to hard news topics like foreign affairs.

Whether it was psychic mediums like John Edward (remember him?), or UFO conspiracy theories like Roswell, the topics popular culture once thought were important suddenly seemed altogether trivial. There remain many TV series, films, books, and news stories that deal with psychics, mediums, or aliens, and if this last television season is any indication, more are on their way. Yet according to the data, over the past few years, these themes haven’t been nearly as central to the American zeitgeist as they once were.

Why does the media environment matter when thinking about the origins of public belief? The answer turns on a theory of media effects called priming. According to this research (see references), individual opinion is heavily dependent on the types of considerations and examples about a topic that are available in short term memory. Which depictions of reality are more accessible in a person’s mind than others is a function of the nature of media content and the media consumption habits of the individual. The persuasion influence of the media is enhanced in this case because few individuals, when watching TV or a movie, think systematically about the reality of the portrayals that are featured.

Absent a motivation to actively evaluate the depictions of the paranormal that might be featured on TV, when asked in a telephone survey to reach a judgment about the reality of UFOs or psychics, for most heavy media consumers, depictions alleging the reality of these claims remain more readily accessible than counter-examples. The result is that as the frequency and availability of media depictions about UFOs or aliens increases, such as was the case in the late 1990s, there is likely to be a rise at the aggregate level in belief in these paranormal claims. As the prominence and availability of these examples decreases, as was the case after 2001, there is likely to be a decline at the aggregate level in belief. Over time, up and down media cycles in attention to these claims are likely to closely correlate with marginal shifts in belief.

At the individual-level, the media mechanism contributing to paranormal belief can be tested in two ways. First, if surveys were to ask about levels of attention to specific types of programs that feature paranormal claims, heavier consumers of these programs should be more likely to believe in these media promoted paranormal claims than their lighter viewing counterparts, after controlling statistically for demographics and other possible confounds. Collecting and analyzing panel survey data over time would be the best way to identify whether consumers of these TV products are just believers seeking televised outlets for their fantasies, or whether regular consumption of certain program genres actually enhances belief. Second, if the availability in short term memory of examples about a topic contributes to belief, then when asked in a survey about a paranormal claim, response times to the question should be faster for heavier media consumers than for their lighter viewing counterparts.

The media’s influence, however, should not be thought of only in terms of direct persuasion. There are a number of complex indirect effects that are likely to promote belief in the paranormal. For example, media exposure to a paranormal claim is likely to motivate some media consumers to seek out more information about the topic. Unfortunately, the most readily accessible books and Web sites are only likely to reinforce the apparent veracity of these claims. Notice for example the range of results for a Google search on “UFO crash Roswell, New Mexico,” or “spirit mediums.”

Finally, media depictions are only part of the puzzle. Media portrayals appear to only move public opinion about these claims in relatively limited ways. In addition, media influence is likely to vary across or be contingent upon a number of other variables such as education, age, ethnicity, and conversation partners. Careful research in this area is merited before firm conclusions can be reached.

References

Figure 2. Belief in ESP or Extrasensory Perception

figure 2

Note: Gallup asked respondents: For each of the following items I am going to read you, please tell me whether it is something you believe in, something you’re not sure about, or something you don’t believe in. How about ESP or extrasensory perception? For 1990, N=1,226, margin of error +/-3% at 95% confidence level; 1996, N=1,000, +/-3%; 2001, N=1,012, +/-3%; 2005, N=1,002, +/-3%. Not displayed “No opinion.”

Figure 3. Belief in Telepathy or Communication Between Minds

figure 3

Note: Gallup asked respondents: For each of the following items I am going to read you, please tell me whether it is something you believe in, something you’re not sure about, or something you don’t believe in. Telepathy, or communication between minds without using the traditional five senses? For 1990, N=1,226, margin of error +/-3% at 95% confidence level; For 1996, N=1,000, +/-3%; For 2001, N=1,012, +/-3%; For 2005, N=1,002, +/-3%. Not displayed “No opinion.”

Figure 4. Belief in Communication With the Dead

figure 4

Note: Gallup asked respondents: For each of the following items I am going to read you, please tell me whether it is something you believe in, something you’re not sure about, or something you don’t believe in. That people can hear from or communicate mentally with someone who has died? For 1990, N=1,226, margin of error +/-3% at 95% confidence level; For 1996, N=1,000, +/-3%; For 2001, N=1,012, +/-3%; For 2005, N=1,002, +/-3%. Not displayed “No opinion.”

Figure 5. Belief that Extra-Terrestrials Have Visited Earth

figure 5

Note: Gallup asked respondents: For each of the following items I am going to read you, please tell me whether it is something you believe in, something you’re not sure about, or something you don’t believe in. That extra-terrestrial beings have visited earth at some time in the past? For 1990, N=1,226, margin of error +/-3% at 95% confidence level; For 2001, N=1,012, +/-3%; For 2005, N=1,002, +/-3%. Not displayed “No opinion.”

Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as public relations director for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer.