Do women want to believe?

Do women want to believe?
January 6, 2011
National Times

Do women want to believe?
January 6, 2011

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Are women really more likely than men to believe in the paranormal?

You'd certainly think so if you were to go by what's on the female-oriented pay-TV channels: ghost hunters, "psychic" detectives, people who claim to talk to the dead, even supposedly psychic children. Women's magazines are full of horoscopes and ask-a-psychic columns, while men's mags are full of beer ads and babes. The conclusion seems obvious, doesn't it?

But Perth teacher and researcher Kylie Sturgess has found that the difference between women and men isn't so much in their propensity to hold paranormal beliefs as it is in the kinds of paranormal beliefs they're likely to hold.

"Women are more likely to be at the 'social' end of paranormal beliefs," Sturgess says. "They're more likely to believe in things like mediums, astrology, psychic healing, and ghosts.

"Men, for instance, are more likely than women to believe in the alien astronaut theories of Erich von Daniken, and more cryptozoological things like the Loch Ness monster."

Studies have also shown that men are also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, creationism and the notions of historical revisionists, while women are more likely to believe in telepathy and New Age theories.

Sturgess has completed a masters dissertation based on a survey that she and her research partner, Professor Martin Bridgstock of Griffith University, conducted on the paranormal beliefs of 1243 Australians across Queensland.

One of the more interesting things she found during the course of her research is that the belief that the September 11 terrorist attacks were an inside job is on the wane. Sturgess says the release of the official 9/11 Commission Report in 2004 and the election of Barack Obama in 2008 are among the things that have contributed to a general decline in interest in the subject.

Sturgess says differences between the paranormal beliefs of men and women can in part be attributed to historical, cultural and societal factors. One example is the enduring popularity among women of mediums, which she traces back to the emergence of the Fox Sisters in the US in the 1840s. At the time, women had little clout in society and spiritualism was seen as empowering - much as it is still seen today.

She also says there are arguments about differences in the way the sexes think - with women performing better with social skills in some tests - but that differences should not be seen as deficiencies in cognition.

But Sturgess, who has written about women and the paranormal on her blog and covered the topic on her Token Skeptic podcast, is fairly relaxed about most everyday paranormal beliefs.

"I see it as human. I see it as completely and utterly normal for people to not think all that much about the ramifications of (paranormal beliefs) or how they could be tested. A lot of it is benign. Grandma reading her tea leaves - how bad could that be? It comes down to how seriously you take it and what it can then lead you to do or unquestioningly recommend to others."

Sturgess says it's possible to get people to reconsider their beliefs, but that a remorselessly rational, head-on challenge isn't always the most effective. Sturgess found her high-school students became more sceptical of astrology after listening to the Tim Minchin song If You Open Your Mind Too Much Your Brain Will Fall Out.

Her advice for women exasperated by their friends' unusual beliefs is to be understanding but also to network with people who are similarly sceptically minded.

"It would become incredibly lonely (to be a solo sceptic). Look around you - there are plenty of women who are sceptically inclined. I recommend sites like and seeking out groups on to further network with like-minded people."

Do you think women are unfairly seen as being more gullible and less rational than men? If you're a woman, are you annoyed that much of the media assumes that you believe in the supernatural? Do you have friends or family whose paranormal beliefs drive you bonkers?
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