Where is Bigfoot’s Poop? On Cognitive Limitations and Conspiracy Theories

Belief in Bigfoot and other strange theories is a product of inherent limitations of human thinking

SKUNKAPEWhen I was a shaver, I believed there was a creature called Bigfoot, and I could support this belief with evidence. Many cultures have stories of a shaggy-haired man-like reclusive creature. Many reputable people say they think they have seen or heard such a creature. There are blurry photos and videos that show what looks like Bigfoot. Scientists have found footprints in the snow that are too large to be made by any known animal. And so on.

When sceptics argued my evidence might have another causes, for example pointing out that the freezing and thawing of ice can make the footprint of a bear or wolf much larger over time, I was unmoved, because my theory explained all the evidence I could see.

But then someone smart asked me a question: “Where is Bigfoot’s poop?”. I saw the logic immediately. Given that Bigfoot is large and uses lots of energy roaming widely in the forests, he needs a lot of calories to keep going. That means he must eat a lot. And as he is a humanoid, he presumably excretes the remains of his meals. He himself may be reclusive, but his poop wouldn’t be. So why don’t we find his spoor as we do that of every other creature? Does he carry it with him in an American Tourister bag or something? This point shattered my faith in Bigfoot.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s marvelous book Thinking Fast and Slow well describes the basic cognitive limitations that made me (and many other people) believe in Bigfoot. The first is the tendency to see common themes where they aren’t any, which made Bigfoot seem to me the logical, essential thread connecting all my disparate “evidence”. The other is that the human mind focuses on what is in front of it while being poor at accounting for what is not present, like Bigfoot’s poop.

Whoever asked me the poop question (I wish I could remember so that I could thank him or her) didn’t try to dispute the evidence which I thought supported my theory. Rather, they took my theory as correct and then pointed out that what followed logically from it was not in evidence. Some people cannot be argued out of strange theories for emotional reasons, but those who can are more likely to be susceptible to this style of counter-argument than they are a direct attack on their observed evidence.

These thoughts were triggered by a passenger next to me on an airplane recently telling me that there is a new documentary coming out that will prove that TWA Flight 800 crashed into the ocean after leaving New York City because some terrorists in a boat shot it down with a shoulder-fired missile. I am not going to watch this film, but I can guess that it will assemble all evidence consistent with that theory.

There will be credible people on screen saying they saw a bright ray of light over the ocean right before the crash. There will be former intelligence officers saying that terrorists have always been interested in downing planes, and indeed that a terrorist cell in Africa even tried this once with shoulder-fired surface to air missiles. There will be someone who works at the NYC harbor saying s/he saw two suspicious guys in a rowboat, maybe adding that one of them was eating falafel or reading the Koran.

It will all be true and therefore seem compelling as long the viewer doesn’t exert the significant cognitive effort it takes to redirect their attention to what they cannot see, namely the evidence that would be present if the theory were true: If terrorists did it, why haven’t they done it again and again since? Given that terrorists want people to be afraid, why didn’t they announce that they did it? When the mind is directed to these questions, the plausibility of the theory shrinks to nothing.

As I said, some people hang on to conspiracy theories no matter what for emotional reasons, most typically because it makes them feel important to think they see the hidden truth that escapes all the suckers around them. But if you are arguing about TWA 800 terrorists or any other such theory with someone who is emotionally stable enough to appreciate logic, don’t argue about what they can see but what they can’t.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

46 thoughts on “Where is Bigfoot’s Poop? On Cognitive Limitations and Conspiracy Theories”

  1. Did ya ever think of Bigfoot Johnny on the Spots? They’re camoflaged to look like trees and big rocks ‘n’ stuff so they’re real hard to find.
    Now, try to argure against that! Thought you could fool me but you can’t pull the wool out’a my eyes.

  2. A related Bigfoot question (which I heard from a paleontologist in college) is “Where are the impressions of Bigfoot’s bottom?” A Bigfoot creature would need an enormous posterior and would want to get all that weight off its feet frequently. So if we have footmarks, we should also have bottom marks.

    1. Your paleontologist doesn’t sound all that bright. Or maybe he\she just hasn’t walked around in forests much? The ground there is generally either too rocky, covered with vegetation or just too hard to take an imprint. In fact; percentage wise, it’s pretty rare. So for this to work, a bigfoot would have to purposely seek out and sit on some muddy, bald patch of earth and then we would have to come along shortly there after and find this rarity before it rained or snowed.

      All in all, it’s not very likely. However; the History Channel has a show where several scientists examine this very thing; a large, full body print. I don’t recall the episode name, but I know Dr. Jeff Meldgrum was one of the guests.

      1. Your paleontologist doesn’t sound all that bright. Or maybe he\she just hasn’t walked around in forests much

        This is just mean-spirited and undermines your own credibility. Keep it civil or don’t comment here.

        1. I have not read the book, but I believe you have not done a good “slow” thinking on this one. There are many likely reasons that bigfoot poop is not seen or seen frequently. For instance, many animals bury their scat. Even my house cat does this, and my cat is not a recluse. I have seen dogs bury scat. When I am in the woods, I bury my scat. I am pretty sure I exist, but you are unlikely to find my poop even if you knew where I was camped.

          Second, scat breaks down in a very short time span. So whatever the quantity, there is only a limited window to find it. Additionally, I doubt there are many people looking for the droppings.

          Next,if you found my poop either buried or just sitting out, would you really want to take it as a sample? If you consider that a bigfoot dump may look a lot like mine, you might just pass it by as another human’s. But, since bigfoot sightings are generally not on a main trail but off in the thicket/woods, I would guess that is where they poop. I would doubt that many people are bush whacking looking for scat.(But if picking up poop is your thing, go for it!)

          Even if you are determined and find your bigfoot poop jackpot, do you take it to the bigfoot poop registry? What are you going to measure it against to prove it is a bigfoot poop? At best you come back with “unknown scat”.

          So to recap under your paradigm;
          Buried scat = No poop = Bigfoot does not exist
          Scat difficult to find in the brush = No poop = Bigfoot does not exist
          Scat breaks down fast = No poop = Bigfoot does not exist
          Few actually looking for scat = No poop = Bigfoot does not exist
          Scat uncollected/mistaken for human = No poop = Bigfoot does not exist
          Scat cannot be matched = No poop = Bigfoot does not exist

          Many people think lack of a body means the same thing – Bigfoot does not exist. But there are at least a hundred thousand bears in the North American woods, but finding a bear carcass is extremely rare.

      2. Uh, do you understand that this is the sort of thing which paleontologists deal with every day? As well as biologists?

  3. Rush Limbaugh is a member of a related species whose common name is Big Ass. The scientific name is Dextroalar idioticus.

    1. Cats do not always bury their scats. They only regularly bury scats in the immediate vicinity of their den, they are unlikely to bury scats near the boundaries of their home range.

      House cats bury their scat because the litter box is very near their den.

    1. No. But maybe you hit on something there. And that would be that Bigfeet(?) cover their poop for the same reasons cats do; because of territorial reasons, or not wanting their presence detected. If they’re smart enough to hunt and track other animals, they’re smart enough to know that they themselves could be tracked.

      1. Do you understand that anybody using dogs can smell things buried under a small amount of dirt? They’d head straight to Bigfoot poop, because it’s something new to roll in! 🙂

  4. On a related point, how come no corpses or bones have been found? Or do they bury their dead and then carefully remove any evidence of having done so? Or maybe when they die their bones are teleported back to the mother ship… yeah, that’s it….

    1. They are shipped by surviving Bigfeet to Area 51, where the federal government trades them with space aliens in exchange for gold bars which finance the Illuminati’s efforts to re-purchase the Holy Grail from the Knights of Malta

      1. The USGS is developing a Big Feet re-establishment plan. The Area 51 captive breeding program is phase one of the re-establishment plan.

        The expected initial release date is Never 12 of next year.

    2. Bodies do decompose rather quickly – see the bear comment elsewhere – and unless a Bigfoot were to have a heart attack while walking on a trail I doubt they tend to die where lots of people are walking.

  5. Until about halfway through this post, I thought it was leading up to some groan-inducing pun.

    1. I can see that, the Boy Who Cried Wolf effect. But I think Humphreys only posts his shaggy dog hog ‘squatch stories on the weekend.

  6. I indirectly blame Carl Sagan, for popularizing the aphorism, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” That may be valid in some contexts, such as the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. In others, such as the search for Bigfoot, the total absence of many kinds of evidence that could reasonably be expected is powerful evidence of absence.

    1. I’ve noted that – “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” actually makes some assumptions, that nobody with means and motive have been looking.

  7. I think this quote from Richard Powers’ Aegypt is apposite :

    “Good lord, Pierce thought, snapping shut the book and reinserting it in its row. Star temples and ley lines, UFOs and landscape giants, couldn’t they see that what was really, permanently astonishing was the human ability to keep finding these things? Let anyone looking for them be given a map of Pennsylvania or New Jersey or the Faraways and he will find “ley-lines”; let human beings look up long enough on starry nights and they will see faces looking down at them. _That’s_ the interesting thing, _that’s_ the subject: not why there are ley-lines, but why people find them; not what plan the aliens had for us, but why we think there must, somehow, always have been a plan.”

  8. Of course, John Crowly wrote Aegypt, not Richard Powers. I am embarassed by the error.

  9. Reminds me of the argument against time travel: if it will be possible in the future, why haven’t we met anyone who came from then?

    1. Larry Niven played with this idea. The question is whether it’s possible to go back in time & change anything. If someone from the future said “Hi, I’m from the future,” then something was changed. Niven’s Theorem holds that if travel into the past in a way that changes the past is possible in some universe, then time travel will never be discovered in that universe. Proof: If time travel allows changing the past, then it’ll be used to ‘fix’ things; there’s too much future and too many good intentions to prevent it. Every time the past is changed, you have to re-roll the dice to allow for the changes you’ve made, intentionally or not. By the law of large numbers, eventually a change will be made such that time travel is never discovered, and *that* universe will be stable.

      Now, if you can’t change the past (you can’t stop John Wilkes Booth because you *didn’t*), this may not apply.

      But if time travel *is* possible, we won’t discover it.

      And I’d apologize for being off-topic, but, well, look at the rest of the comments….

  10. Bigfoot buries his poop, as logic would suggest, to cover his tracks. Although sometimes he flings it at his enemies, much like our mutual relatives, monkeys. You might say Bigfoot scatters his scat.

  11. Similar to the Bigfoot example, I recall a conversation with a friend who likes to argue that much of older science was done by theory rather than (the historically reported) experimentation. He had a clever, detailed argument for Mendel, how there were breeding theories before, how his published results were too perfect, and the like. I let him run his theory out, then asked a simple question. “How did he correctly guess which pea traits were dominant?”

    It was a rare case of me actually convincing somebody of something. I doubt it would have worked if I attacked any part of his theory.

  12. That is one of the big three questions as far as I am concerned – Poop, where does it sleep and where does it raise its young?

  13. I couldn’t agree more, where is the critical thinking in these people. Bigfoot is what aliens used to make mankind, the true missing link, these are our ancestors the best hiders of our past and have gotten really really good at it, you gotta remember they were the last of our kind that “didn’t get caught” and upgraded. I know where they are but will never say. It is really funny how all the shows portray these people as specialist in finding something in the woods lol knocking on trees lmao use your heads, its like watching scooby doo and the gang chasing Bigfoot.. Sorry, it’s just pathetic. But this is the race of beings that are being used currently to populate other worlds for our future arrivals.. Take everything you are hearing and paint a big picture make it make sense and that’s your answer.. Shit is about to change, don’t die in the next couple years…

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