Paranormal Beliefs:
An Analysis of College Students

This study examines the paranormal beliefs of college students along thirteen dimensions related to age, area of study, and education level. Are college students more apt to believe in the paranormal? Does education level have an effect on belief?

By Bryan Farha and Gary Steward Jr.


The Gallup Survey on Psychic and Paranormal Beliefs:

The 2001 Gallup Poll of psychic and paranormal beliefs revealed the following: first, younger americans were more likely to believe in haunted houses, witches, ghosts, extraterrestrial visitation, and clairvoyance than older Americans. Second, older Americans are somewhat more likely to believe in demonic possession than younger Americans. In terms of gender, more women than men believe in ghosts and that people can communicate with the dead. Men are more likely to believe that extraterrestrials have visited the Earth. The poll showed that 55 percent of Americans who place a daily priority on religion believe in demonic possession, compared to only 14 percent of Americans who do not. Further, respondents who place great importance on religion were less likely to believe in extraterrestrial visitation than less "religious" respondents.

Belief in demonic possession, astrology, and haunted houses increases as education level of the respondent decreases. A logical conclusion would suggest that more education and critical thinking decreases pseudoscientific or paranormal beliefs. The participants of the 2001 Gallup Poll were drawn from a random sample of the U.S. population. Our study compares the results of the 2001 Gallup Poll to a sample of college students. We assumed that higher education, as one of the few remaining bastions of critical thinking, would provide little room for pseudoscientific or paranormal beliefs.


The Study:

Our survey instrument was patterned after the 2001 Gallup Poll and was administered to 439 college students from metropolitan universities in the southwest central region of the United States.

The instrument included thirteen paranormal dimensions: psychic or spiritual healing, extra sensory perception, haunted houses, demonic possession, ghosts, telepathy, extraterrestrial visitation, clairvoyance, communication with the dead, astrology, witches, reincarnation and channeling. In addition to the thirteen dimensions, we also asked participants to provide information on age, major area of study, religious affiliation, and education level (i.e., freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, graduate student).

For each of the dimensions of paranormal belief, participants were asked to circle either "Believe," "Not Sure," or "Don't Believe." We condensed the areas of study into seven broad categories: Sciences, Social Sciences, Education, Fine Arts, Business, Humanities, and Undecided.


Results and Discussion:

Table 1: College student beliefs relative to Gallup Poll Results (in Parentheses)

Paranormal Dimension


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)

25 (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)


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)

Table 1 above shows a summary of the results of the college students' survey in bold-faced type. For comparative purposes, the 2001 Gallup Poll results appear parenthetically. Percentages have been rounded up or down to the nearest whole number.

Generally, our sample reported less belief in the paranormal dimensions than the Gallup Poll participants, with the exception of psychic or spiritual healing (two percent higher) and ghosts (one percent higher). The most extreme difference between the Gallup Poll and our student sample is ESP. Twenty-eight percent of college students reported belief in ESP compared to 50 percent in the 2001 Gallup Poll (22 percent difference). Disparity also exists regarding the dimensions of extraterrestrial visitation (16 percent difference), telepathy (12 percent difference), communication with the dead (12 percent difference), astrology (11 percent difference), and reincarnation (11 percent difference). However, in terms of those reporting "Don't Believe" (which we argue to be indicative of skepticism), our sample reported more skepticism across only six dimensions of paranormal beliefs (ESP, telepathy, extraterrestrial visitation, communication with the dead, astrology, and reincarnation). Interestingly, Gallop Poll participants were decidedly more skeptical of psychic or spiritual healing, haunted houses, demonic possession, ghosts, clairvoyance, and witches.


Education Level:

Table 2: Belief by education level
Education level
Percentage of Believers
Graduate Students

Our results reveal a distinct pattern regarding education level: as educational level increases, belief across all thirteen paranormal dimensions increases (see table 2).

Specifically, the paranormal dimensions of ESP, haunted houses, and ghosts are consistent with this pattern (i.e., as educational level increases, the percentage of believers increases). Psychic or spiritual healing generally follows the same patter, where nearly half of the participants across all educational levels reported belief in the phenomena. Contrary to our prediction, an overwhelming percentage of seniors (67 percent) and graduate students (74 percent) reported belief in psychic or spiritual healing.

Demonic possession and telepathy (i.e., communication between minds without using the traditional five senses) follows the same pattern with the exception of a slight reduction of belief at the senior level. Additionally, belief in witches is consistent with the stated pattern, with the exception of a minor reduction at the junior level, followed by a consistent increase in seniors and graduate-student participants. Extraterrestrial visitation, clairvoyance, and astrology are consistent with the overall pattern through seniors, but decrease among graduate students.

Reincarnation, channeling, spirit communication display an inconsistent pattern. Although erratic, the frequency of those reporting belief is fairly low. This may be due to the influence of a strong presence of conventional religion in the geographic region in which the data were collected. While some consider the university to be the last bastion of critical thinking, our sample reflects otherwise. Contrary to our expectations, a higher educational level does not appear to have a dampening effect on paranormal beliefs.


Gender and Age:

Most paranormal dimensions reveal little difference between males and females. Females are 7 percent more likely to believe in psychic or spiritual healing and astrology - which could be viewed as consistent with cultural stereotypes of females being more nurturing and intuitive than men. Males are 7 percent more likely to believe in extraterrestrial visitation - which could be accounted for by virtue of men's interest in sciences such as astronomy and the claimed similarity between astrology and astronomy. All other dimensions showed now appreciable difference in gender.

Regarding age, all dimensions - with the exception of astrology, reincarnation, and channeling - indicate an appreciably stronger belief among those who are aged twenty-three and older. Unlike the 2001 Gallup Poll, our sample did not adequately represent older participants. Therefore, we divided age into two categories: Those under twenty-three years of age and those aged twenty-three and older.


Area of Study:

Table 3: Belief by area of study
Area of Study
Percentage of Believers
Social Sciences
Fine Arts

Contrary to our expectations, students in the social sciences showed stronger belief than students in all other areas of study (table 3). Interestingly, fine arts students were more skeptical across all paranormal dimensions. This may be due to the low number of reported students studying the fine arts (N = 23) in our sample, or it may reflect a real difference.


Our study examines student beliefs among thirteen paranormal dimensions. While the overall sample reported less "belief" than the participants than the 2001 Gallup Poll, we were surprised that there was less skepticism (fewer "Don't Believe" answers) among the college sample (on only six of thirteen measures were students less skeptical). Contrary to our expectations, we found that an increase in educational level is associated with an increase in the number of people reporting "belief." In other words, as people attain higher college-education levels, the likelihood of believing in paranormal dimensions increases.

About the Authors:

Bryan Farha is a professor of behavior studies in education at Oklahoma City University and a CISCOP scientific and technical consultant.

Gary Steward Jr. is an associate professor of sociology and Interim Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Central Oklahoma.


Gallup Poll. 2001. Americans' belief in psychic and paranormal in paranormal phenomena is up over the last decade. Retrieved February 4, 2005. Available at http://www.gallup.com/poll/4483/Americans-Belief-Psychic-Paranormal-Phenomena-Over-Last-Decade.aspx



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