Of course by now you’ve heard about the “environmental DNA” research recently conducted in Loch Ness. It’s a neat, new technique that sifts through the stuff that sloughs off organisms to find out what’s living in a particular place. If something novel and undocumented turns up in the Loch — that would be pretty great.
But what if it doesn’t? Will that make Nessie believers give up the ghost? Not likely. We reached out to AiPT! contributor and Board-Certified psychiatrist, Richard Schloss, to find out why.
The Loch Ness monster. Bigfoot/Sasquatch. The Yeti. El Chupacabra. The Mothman. The Jersey Devil. These mythical creatures, or cryptids, are quite literally the stuff of legends. And yet, millions of otherwise (presumably) rational people believe in them, study them, and in many cases claim to have seen them. The old International Society of Cryptozoology (ISC) lasted only from 1982 to 1998 – but its successor, the International Cryptozoology Society, was founded in 2016 and is still going strong. Not to mention the 100 episodes of Finding Bigfoot that have graced(?) our television screens.
Cryptozoology (literally “the study of hidden animals”) is considered a pseudoscience for several reasons. Cryptozoologists search for and compile shreds of evidence, much of which is based on notoriously unreliable eyewitness reports, and tend to disregard evidence that contradicts what they want so desperately to believe.
When physical “evidence” for the existence of cryptids has been enthusiastically reported, it has invariably been quietly debunked soon after. “Sasquatch fur” found by campers or hikers turns out to be that of a bear or coyote when analyzed. The famous (infamous?) Patterson-Gimlin “Bigfoot Film” showing a grainy image of a large, apelike creature walking away and turning to look at the camera is clearly a man in a gorilla suit.
And yet, a Harris poll found that “71% of Americans believe in ‘miracles,’ 42% of Americans believe that ‘ghosts’ exist, 41% think that ‘extrasensory perception’ (e.g. telepathy) is possible, and 29% believe in astrology. As reported by Sander van der Linden, 21% of Americans think the government is hiding aliens, 28% of Americans believe that a mysterious, secret elite power is plotting a New World Order (NWO), and 14% of Americans believe in Bigfoot.” Belief in conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and the paranormal all tends to correlate.
Why is this? According to van der Linden, the tendency to engage in magical thinking is linked to overall cognitive style, in terms of whether the individual is inherently an intuitive or a reflective thinker. Intuitive thinkers are the “go-with-the-gut” types, tending to depend on initial emotional response to know what “feels” correct, whereas reflective thinkers tend to mistrust emotional responses and wait until all information is available before reaching a conclusion.
Before you decide that reflective thinking is clearly superior to intuitive thinking, remember that both cognitive approaches evolved because both have a role to play in the survival of the individual. One cannot decide to search for more corroborating evidence when the possible nearby presence of a large predator is detected. At least, if one hopes to live very long.
So why, exactly, are intuitive thinkers more likely to fall prey to magical thinking? One suggestion comes from psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who coined the term “conjunction fallacy.” This represents a basic error in reasoning in which people tend to assume that unlikely events become more plausible if they occur together. Actually, the likelihood of both events occurring together is far less than that of either event occurring alone.
If we say that Mme. Soandso has precognition, a certain percentage of people may believe it; but if we now say that Mme. Soandso can read minds and predict the future, many intuitive types will wrongly assume that both of those claims are more likely because they seem related, when in fact the likelihood of both being true is less likely than either one alone. And we find that people who endorse one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe in other baseless theories about the same set of events because “they can’t all be a coincidence.”
For many believers in cryptozoology, “cognitive dissonance” often comes into play. This concept, first described by psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s, holds that when individuals are confronted with evidence that contradicts their strongly held beliefs, it causes mental conflict and tension. To relieve this tension, these individuals will employ one or more defense mechanisms: rejecting outright the validity of the new evidence, insisting that the apparent conflict is illusory and in fact no conflict exists, or incorporating the new evidence while claiming that it actually strengthens the original claim rather than weakening it.
An example of this lattermost phenomenon, is when conspiracy theorists use apparent contradictions between factual reports as “evidence” of a government cover-up. Then, when the alleged discrepancy is shown to be nonexistent, they switch to insisting that this is “proof” of their claims, because “only the government could cover its tracks so well.”
The frequency with which people believe in cryptids and conspiracy theories also stems in part from the basic human desire to feel special – to believe that one is not just as much in the dark as the average person, but is in fact privy to the most secretly held “insider” information. For such believers, their ability to find the “hidden evidence” – which is alternatively described as either cleverly disguised, or else painfully obvious to those who will but open their minds – gives them a sense of importance, of being both a public service whistleblower and a danger to government cloak-and-dagger types.
The truth is indeed “out there” – but it’s supported by the evidence, and if the evidence points elsewhere, then our monsters must be banished back to the shadows of human superstition from whence they came. Of course, as we can see, that’s easier said than done.
The Critical Angle is a recurring feature that uses critical thinking and skepticism to analyze pop culture phenomena. Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Rather than repeating the same old assertions, we put them to the test.