Why do some hold Paranormal Beliefs while others don’t?

An engraving of the Hammersmith Ghost appears in Roger Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, a magazine published in 1804. The “ghost” turned out to be an old local cobbler who used a white sheet to get back at his apprentice for scaring his grandchildren

Life after death, ghosts, gods, aliens, near-death experiences, and other similar beliefs all are topics that have no robust objective evidence. Such topics tend to reach a balance. There is just enough noise floating about to convince those that believe in the reality of it all, yet nothing conclusive ever emerges that is sufficient to convince a skeptic. It all remains just out of reach and very fuzzy.

Seriously now, Finding Bigfoot has had 9 seasons and over 100 episodes. The result so far is, (insert drum roll here), no Bigfoot. You would think that might be a clue right there, but apparently not.

A rather interesting question is to wonder why it is like this, why do some humans believe, and yet other humans don’t, what is going on inside our heads to tip us one way or the other.

Open Minded?

Some might suggest to the skeptics, “You are not open minded, you need to seriously consider the possibility“.

But wait“, the skeptic might exclaim, “If I told you that leprechauns and fairies dance together in my garden every night, would you start by believing that until it was disproven?

Let’s suppose that I really did sincerely believe that. You verified that I was not lying, I genuinely believed it. Would you then believe, or would you ask the rather sensible question, “Can you show me?“.

Sure“, I say, so off we go to my yard and wait for sundown. Nothing happens, the stars are out, but we do not see any little people. The only visitors are the bats swooshing around. You ask, “where are the leprechauns and fairies?“. “Oh“, I explain, “sorry, did I not make that clear, they are invisible“.

Ah“, so after a bit of thought you propose that we can scatter flour on the ground and see the footprints. “Nope, they all float and don’t touch the ground“. After a bit more thought the idea of an infrared camera is surfaced to detect their body heat. Once again, no, they are magic and evade that.

No matter what is proposed for detection, nothing works, I just give you a reason why it can’t work.

You might then conclude that I’m crazy.

But wait, many of my neighbours have the same story, they also claim to have leprechauns and fairies dancing in their gardens. Their parents and their grandparents tell the same story. No solid evidence ever emerges. Sometimes there are stories of what once might have been a footprint, but it is long gone when you go to check.

You have an epiphany moment and ask “Why do you believe this, what makes you convinced that this is really true?

I explain that I can feel them in my heart when they are there and also that they sometimes talk to me.

Do you mean that you hear voices?“. I explain it is not like that, they just pop the thoughts into my dreams while I sleep, or into my waking thoughts as I go about the yard. “I just know they are there“, I assert.

Does this sound familiar?

So why are we like this, why do some embrace such magical thinking while others take a more skeptical approach and genuinely do not believe, not because they are angry with the leprechauns and fairies and don’t want to participate in the dance, but because they really do not think they are actually there.

Let’s go a bit sciency now.

Why do Paranormal Beliefs exist?

A 2015 Scientific American article titled “How Come Some People Believe in the Paranormal?” gives us a fascinating insight into what is really going on.

Behind that article is a study that revels that how we think about things is the key to understanding. If curious to dig into it in more detail, then I do recommend the article.

There is one example that illustrates the essence of the insight …

…if a baseball and a bat cost $1.10 and the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

Hit pause and consider that question, what is the right answer, then read on.

The quick obvious answer to leap to is that the ball costs $0.10.

But that’s wrong.

You need to think about it a bit more and not just intuitively leap.

The correct answer is that the ball costs $0.05 and the bat costs $1.05 … and so that is the only way that the bat can actually cost $1 more than the ball. To get to the right answer you need to pause and use analytical thinking to reason it out.

In reality, the big picture is this.

We all utilise both analytical thinking and also intuitive thinking all the time. Nobody will exclusively use one. What is also true is that some of us will tend to lean a bit more into intuitive thinking and others will lean a bit more into analytical thinking. This is what the study reveals.

Those leaning into intuitive thinking were also those who tended to be more inclined to have supernatural beliefs.

Is this the way it is, are we all stuck with a specific way of thinking?

Nope, not at all.

A 2014 paper in Cognition reveals that nudging people into analytic thinking makes a difference. In that specific paper they were looking at belief in conspiracy theories. Basically getting their participants to think more analytically resulted in a measured decrease in conspiracy thinking.

As our lives progress we can swing between having a bias for intuitive thinking and a bias for analytical thinking. We can, if we are prepared to do so, learn to apply analytical thinking when it really matters.

We all do both. We have to, we can’t possibly apply analytical thinking to everything.

If faced with a choice of beverage or ice cream, you really don’t need to analytically examine it, just pick what you like. If however faced with an amazing claim, then picking it up and running hard and fast with it uncritically because you like it, might indeed not be wise.

Why does any of this matter?

If you are interested in believing as many true things as possible and as few false things as possible then analytical thinking is indeed a skill you should nurture for unusual claims.

Does it really matter if you believe something that is not real?

Sure it does.

What you do and how you behave is often driven by what you believe to be true. Decent honourable people can be tricked into behaving in a truly obnoxious and odious manner if they have become convinced that doing that is the high moral ground.

A political example is the infamous stolen election claim, a.k.a. Trump’s Big Lie, that was vigorously promoted via various media outlets that knew it was a lie but promoted it anyway. Net impact: Numerous people are now in jail with their lives utterly ruined because they believed the lie and participated on Jan 6.

Since we are on the topic, there is one more point to make related to this.

Something to be aware of also is that those that lean upon intuitive thinking and don’t reflect upon what is actually going on will face the distinct possibility of being far more vulnerable to being scammed.

OK, but why do some lean towards intuitive emotional thinking and others carefully consider and analyse things, what tips us one way or the other when it comes to the big questions?

I’ve one more interesting study to bring to the table.

The association between paranormal beliefs and sleep variables

Within the Journal of sleep research a new paper was published Jan 11, 2023.

Titled “The associations between paranormal beliefs and sleep variables” this paper examined was was already known. What is new is that they scaled this up to 8,853 participants.

The abstract sums it up like this …

Poorer subjective sleep quality (lower sleep efficiency, longer sleep latency, shorter sleep duration and increased insomnia symptoms) was associated with greater endorsement of belief in:

(1) the soul living on after death;

(2) the existence of ghosts;

(3) demons;

(4) an ability for some people to communicate with the dead;

(5) near-death experiences are evidence for life after death; and

(6) aliens have visited earth.

In addition, episodes of exploding head syndrome and isolated sleep paralysis were associated with the belief that aliens have visited earth. Isolated sleep paralysis was also associated with the belief that near-death experiences are evidence for life after death.

We know we need to sleep, and understand that it is very important that we get the sleep required. If we don’t get enough sleep then we know that impacts the ability of our brain to function.

If indeed our sleep quality is poor then that will impact our ability to think analytically, so we naturally fall back upon intuitive thinking to be able to function.

Bottom Line: If you do indeed wish to lean more towards thinking analytically, then making sure you get a good nights sleep will really help you with that.


Never forget that no matter what you do, you can still be fooled.

I can be fooled.

We can all be well and truly conned … no exceptions.

However, you can arm yourself against this to some degree. When faced with something that sounds too good to be true or is truly extraordinary and has successfully tickled your brain, then treat that as the “go” signal to hit pause and apply a bit of analytical thinking.

  • Why are they telling me this, what do they get out of it?
  • What convinced me/them that it is really true?
  • etc…

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