Higher Education Fuels Stronger Belief in Ghosts

Believe it or not, higher education is linked to a greater tendency to believe in ghosts and other paranormal phenomena, according to a new study.

Contrary to researchers' expectations, a poll of 439 college students found seniors and grad students were more likely than freshmen to believe in haunted houses, psychics, telepathy, channeling and a host of other questionable ideas.

The results are detailed in the January-February issue of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

'Not Sure'

The survey was modeled after a nationwide Gallup Poll in 2001 that found younger Americans far more likely to believe in the paranormal than older respondents.

The new study was done by Bryan Farha at Oklahoma City University and Gary Steward Jr. of the University of Central Oklahoma.

In general college students checked the "Believe" box less than the general population surveyed by Gallup. But the lack of "Don't Believe" responses among college students was lower for six of the 13 categories: psychic or spiritual healing, haunted houses, demonic possession, ghosts, clairvoyance and witches. That means a higher percentage of college students put themselves in the "Not Sure" column on these topics. [Table of results]

Less skeptical

More significantly, the new survey reveals college is not necessarily a path to skepticism in these realms.

While 23 percent of college freshmen expressed a general belief in paranormal concepts—from astrology to communicating with the dead—31 percent of seniors did so and the figure jumped to 34 percent among graduate students.

"As people attain higher college-education levels, the likelihood of believing in paranormal dimensions increases," Farha and Steward write.

The media are likely responsible for some people's beliefs in alien abductions and other paranormal concepts, the scientists write, based on their survey of existing studies. And some people tend to selectively confirm whatever ideas might be in their heads. Even smart people might believe in something offbeat because, in part, they're good at defending whatever they believe.

The Poll Results
How the college students responded in the new poll on a percentage basis (in bold) compared to the 2001 Gallup Poll (parenthesis). Figures are rounded.

 
Paranormal concept

Believe
Not Sure Don't Believe
Psychic or spiritual healing or the power of the human mind to heal the body 56 (54) 26 (19) 18 (26)
ESP or extrasensory perception 28 (50) 39 (20) 33 (27)
That houses can be haunted 40 (42) 25 (16) 34 (41)
That people on this Earth are sometimes possessed by the devil 40 (41) 28 (16) 31 (41)
Ghosts or that spirits of dead people can come back in certain places and situations 39 (38) 27 (17) 34 (44)
Telepathy, or communication between minds without using the traditional five senses 24 (36) 34 (26) 42 (35)
That extraterrestrial beings have visited earth at some time in the past 17 (33) 34 (27) 48 (38)
Clairvoyance, or the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future 24 (32) 33 (23) 42 (45)
That people can hear from or communicate mentally with someone who has died 16 (28) 29 (26) 54 (46)
Astrology, or that the position of the stars and planets can affect people's lives 17 (28) 26 (18) 57 (52)
Witches 26 (26) 19 (15) 55 (59)
Reincarnation, that is, the rebirth of the soul in a new body after death 14 (25) 28 (20) 57 (54)
Channeling, or allowing a "spirit being" to temporarily assume control of a human body during a trance 10 (15) 29 (21) 61 (62)

SOURCE: Bryan Farha and Gary Steward Jr. via the Skeptical Inquirer