The article was updated on 11 June 2019 to include quotes from Prof Chris French.
The FBI has released a cache of files from the seventies pertaining to Bigfoot, specifically documents describing the analysis of hair samples submitted by The Bigfoot Information Center and Exhibition (BIC) in 1976.
Spoiler alert: The hairs were not those of some mythical ape-like creature, but those of a deer.
The cache includes correspondence between Bigfoot hunter Peter Byrne and then FBI Assistant Director Jay Cochran Jr.
On a letter dated November 24, 1976, Byrne wrote: “We do not often come across hair which we are unable to identify and the hair that we have now, about 15 hairs attached to a tiny piece of skin, is the first that we have obtained in six years which we feel may be of importance.”
Cochran replied, saying the FBI usually conducts examinations on physical evidence for law enforcement purposes but “occasionally, on a case-by-case, basis, in the interest of research and scientific inquiry, we make exceptions to this general policy.” And on this ground, he agreed to examine the hairs and tissues Byrne mentioned.
This, says NBC, was the first time the FBI tested hair samples to check whether or not it was Bigfoot’s. The process, Cochran explained, involved a study of morphological characteristics (including root structure, medullary structure, and cuticle thickness) and a comparison with other samples of known origin.
In something of an anti-climax, the sample turned out to be deer hair.
The FBI hasn’t released proof of Bigfoot’s existence but the search is still ongoing, despite a severe lack of evidence (blurry film footage and dubious footprints not withstanding).
Indeed, belief in Bigfoot (and/or its derivatives) is surprisingly high. A 2018 poll conducted by Chapman University found that 21 percent of Americans – including former Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker – agree or strongly agree with the statement “Bigfoot is a real creature”. That is a 7.2 percent jump on the number who believed in Bigfoot’s existence back in 2016.
Meanwhile, another survey also conducted by Chapman University found that Americans are nearly as likely to believe in Bigfoot as they are the Big Bang (which, admittedly, is still a theory, albeit the leading theory on the universe’s origins).
But it's not just that people believe in Bigfoot. Many people claim to have seen Bigfoot. Indeed, there have been more than 2,000 reported sightings in the state of Washington alone.
It's not that new species cannot be identified – Vietnam's soala was only discovered in 1992. But the sheer deficit of scientific evidence supporting an animal's existence in a country as populous as the US makes it highly unlikely to say the very least. So, how do you explain these sightings?
"The main area of psychology that is of relevance to monster sightings is that of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony," Prof Chris French, Director of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London told IFL Science in an email.
"We know from literally hundreds of psychology experiments that people can give honest but grossly inaccurate accounts of events and objects that they have seen for a variety of reasons."
To take an unrelated example, witnesses can quite easily be manipulated to give false confessions (especially if they are tired) – as Netflix's Confession Tapes goes to show. As far as monster sightings go, French lists four reasons behind inaccurate accounts.
"First, the conditions of observation are often poor," said French. "Thus they may misjudge the size and distance of a creature."
"Second, both perception and memory can be biased by our prior expectations. Thus the ambiguous figure in the distance may be recalled as having the typical features of Bigfoot even though we could not actually see the details that well."
"Thirdly, our memory may be biased by information encountered after the sighting, either during questioning or in discussion with co-witnesses. Maybe I initially only saw a vague splashing about in the water but after I hear your confident assertion that you saw a green scaly head, that's what I may begin to believe I saw."
And finally, "such myths are often helped along by deliberate hoaxers, the psychology of which is even more complex!"