Why So Many People Believe in Ghosts

What. Was. That? A 2013 Harris poll found that 42 percent of Americans believe in ghosts. Matthew Hutson, the author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking, sheds light on the reasons we're so bewitched.

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Photo by Stefanie Amm/EyeEm/Getty Images

Why are people drawn to the supernatural?
We have a cognitive bias to find meaningful patterns everywhere we look, to help bring a sense of order to a chaotic world. That's why we see faces in clouds or hear messages in records played backward or even believe we see ghosts.

That's magical thinking?
Yes. As are some urban legends and the notion that if you cross your fingers and something good happens, one caused the other.

How do we get that way?
It's an inherent instinct that we tend to see life and intelligence where it does not exist. This explains why you hug a tree, name your car, or yell at your computer.

That feeds into a belief in ghosts?
Ghost "sightings" result in part from the power of suggestion. If you think you might see a spirit, say, while entering an empty house at night, you're more likely to perceive an experience—whether it's a cold draft or a moving shadow—as an apparition.

Is there something comforting about ghosts?
There's some research that suggests that after you lose a loved one, you're more likely to see a ghost or feel a presence, because you're lonely and there's a desire for contact.

How can you help a child cope with a fear of otherworldly beings?
It might help to search for evidence with him. Look under the bed; shine a light in the closet. You can't always argue away fears, but you can help your child feel protected by simply letting him know that you're there.

Tell us about superstitions.
We've evolved to learn from others and their mistakes. Most of us don't want to tempt fate or disobey advice. With a lot of superstitious rituals—for instance, knocking on wood—the cost of performing them is very small, but the cost of not performing them (if they're "real") can be great. So it's basically "Better safe than sorry." That's the cognitive mechanism at work in our heads, even if we're not conscious of it.

And that connects to urban legends, right?
Yes, urban legends spread because there's potentially greater harm in not believing a claim that's true than in believing something that's false. Humans are social. We share advice and warnings to appear credible, and we tend to respect people for doing so. Urban legends are a side effect of the human need to share true stories, rumors, and advice.

Are there cross-cultural themes to magical thinking?
All cultures have beliefs related to spirits, luck, destiny, and a "boogie man" who's out to get us. There are even universal themes, such as a fear of contamination in what we eat or drink—stories about a village well being poisoned or a mouse found in a can of soda. A lot of urban legends are about hazards.

Is there an upside to magical thinking?
If you believe everything happens for a reason, then when bad things happen, you're more likely to look for—and find—silver linings.

Magical thinking can also give you a sense of control, which in some cases can improve behavior or performance. In one study, subjects were handed a golf ball and asked to make 10 putts. Half the subjects were told the golf ball they used was "lucky." The lucky group made 35 percent more successful putts than the subjects who thought they were using an ordinary ball. So the perks of increased self-confidence and reduced anxiety can play out in your life in very real ways.