Spooky Science: Paranormal Beliefs Linked to Fearful Worldview

An infographic showing paranormal beliefs.
An inforgraphic demonstrating the paranormal beliefs included in the Fear Survey. (Image credit: Chapman University)

People who believe in ghosts may be more afraid of actual, real-world dangers — things like violent crimes or nuclear war — than are people who don't hold paranormal beliefs, a new survey finds.

The Survey of American Fear asked people in the United States to divulge the terrors that keep them up at night. For the survey, nearly 1,500 participants responded to questions about 88 different fears and anxieties, ranging from commonplace phobias (like fear of heights) to less tangible concerns (like fear of government corruption). The survey also asked participants about their beliefs concerning paranormal and mythical things, like ghosts, Bigfoot and ancient aliens.

"The reason we ask [about paranormal things] on the survey is that we're interested in finding out what kind of clusters of beliefs tend to be associated with fear," Christopher Bader, a professor of sociology at Chapman University in California and leader of the second annual Fear Survey, told Live Science. [What Really Scares People: Top 10 Phobias]

Last year in the survey, researchers asked questions that gauged the respondents' scientific reasoning. This was done to find out how the individuals' knowledge of scientific ideas (how electricity works, why the sun sets in the west, etc.) related to those respondents' fears. But this year, the focus was on supernatural beliefs, not scientific ones.

Bader and his colleagues found that quite a few Americans hold paranormal beliefs. The most common of these is the belief that spirits can haunt particular places; 41.4 percent of the demographically representative group of participants said they held this belief. A lot of Americans (26.5 percent) also think that the living and the dead can communicate with each other in some way, the survey found.

Many survey participants said they believe in some form of fortune telling. More than 20 percent of those surveyed said they believe that dreams can foretell the future, and 13.9 percent said they believe in the clairvoyance of astrologers, fortune tellers and psychics. Slightly fewer participants (11.4 percent) said they believe in Bigfoot.

Participants also shared their thoughts on aliens. More than 20 percent said they believe that aliens visited Earth in the ancient past, whereas 18.1 percent of participants said aliens have come to Earth in modern times.

"It's interesting to see if someone who believes in ghosts also believes in Bigfoot," Bader said, "but that interests me far less than finding out this: If someone is a paranormal believer, does that also make them a more fearful person?"

The answer to that question is yes; people who hold paranormal beliefs are more likely to be afraid of, well, everything, said Bader. The relationship between paranormal beliefs and the different kinds of fear explored in the survey are all "statistically significant," he said. However, the relationship is strongest between paranormal beliefs and fear of crime and natural disasters, Bader said.

Why are people who believe in ghosts more likely to be afraid of real-life dangers? That isn't yet clear, but Bader did point to the effect that education has on people's reported fears, as well as their beliefs in the paranormal. Those most likely to report fear are also those with less education, and the same thing goes for beliefs in the paranormal, the researchers said.

"The educational effect is a really powerful one that we as a research team need to spend more time figuring out. It's related to all of the fears," Bader said. "Education even tells me something about your fear of things like clowns. If you have a lower level of education, you're more likely to be afraid of clowns."

For next year's survey, Bader and his colleagues hope to ask participants about their belief in certain conspiracy theories to see how these beliefs are related to reported fear, Bader said.

You can see the full results of the Fear Survey on the Chapman University website.

Follow Elizabeth Palermo @techEpalermo. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth is a former Live Science associate editor and current director of audience development at the Chamber of Commerce. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University. Elizabeth has traveled throughout the Americas, studying political systems and indigenous cultures and teaching English to students of all ages.