Psychological Aspects of UFO Reports

Rhine, Mark W., 1968


Scientists investigating the phenomena of unidentified flying objects have been faced with an unusual dilemma: in the absence of any "hard data" to evaluate, such as a fragment from an UFO or an actual visitor from outer space, the scientist is confronted with the question of abandoning the entire investigation or of relying on eye-witness reports, a notoriously unreliable source of information. The scientist is most comfortable with data which can be replicated and validated by repeated experiment and which his colleagues can confirm.

One way out of such a dilemma is, of course, to deal only with "hard data" and to reject eye-witness reports, with the rationalization that such reports are liable to distortion, cannot be "proved," or are apt to come from "crackpots." Such an attitude is as harmful to the pursuit of truth as is that which is uncritically willing to accept any eye-witness report. An open-minded investigator, honestly endeavoring to understand UFO phenomena, cannot dismiss eye-witness reports, which to date represent the only information he has. Neither can he accept such reports without scrutiny, for there are many possibilities for error and distortion. An initial attitude of "benevolent skepticism," as suggested by Walker s1Walker, S.: "Establishing Observer Creditability: A Proposed Method," Journ. Astronautical Sciences 15, (March-April, 1968), 92-96. in his excellent article on establishing observer creditability, seems appropriate to the evaluation of eye-witness observations.

Perception is an extraordinarily complex process by which people select, organize, and interpret sensory stimulation into a meaningful picture of the world s2Berelson, B. and G. A. Steiner. Human Behavior, New York: Harcourt Brace and World, Inc., 1964.. Perception is more than just raw sensory data; it compromises the selection and interpretation of this data, and it is just in this evaluation of sensations that distortions are likely to occur which may render one person's perception of an event quite different than his neighbor's. There are three broad sources of error in reporting which are of significance to UFO research:

  1. real stimuli which are misidentified (see Section 6, Chapitres 1 and 2) ;
  2. unreal stimuli perceived as real; and
  3. deliberate falsification.

Errors Resulting from Misidentification of Real Stimuli

Optical illusions and the fact that the mind is apt to "play tricks" are well known. The moon on the horizon appears larger than when it is higher in the sky. A stick in the water seems to be bent. Guilford s3Guilford, J. P. "Autokinesis and the Streaming Phenomenon," American Journ. Psychology, 40, (1929), 401-417. showed that a small stationary source of light in a dark room will appear to move about (the autokinetic effect). "Floaters" in the lens of the eye are perceived as "spots" in the air. The following lines look to be of different lengths:

Measuring shows them to be exactly the same length.

These are perceptual distortions which are experienced by everyone. Other distortions may be peculiar to the individual because of his own psychological needs. It is common knowledge that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Poor children are more apt to overestimate the size of coins than are rich children s4Bruner, J. S. and C. C. Goodman. "Value and Need as Organizing Factors in Perception," Journ. Abnormal Soc. Psychology, 42, (1947), 33-44.. Bruner showed that coins marked with a dollar sign were rated larger in size than equal coins marked with a swastika s5Bruner, J. S. and L. Postman. An Approach to Social Perception, in Current Trends in Social Psychology, ed. Dennis, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1948.. The psychological literature is full of reports of similar distortions of size, distance, and time and their relationship to individual emotional characteristics (Brikson, 1968 s6Forgus, R. H. Perception, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966. s7Vernon, M. D. The Psychology of Perception, London: University of London Press, 1962.. The concept of perceptual defense is used by psychologists to characterize the unconscious tendency of people to omit perceiving what they do not want to perceive (Erikson, 1968). Volunteers were more apt to recognize emotionally neutral words than emotionally laden words when they were briefly flashed on a screen s8McGinnies, E. "Emotionality and Perceptual Defense," Psychol. Review, 57, (1958), 373-376..

All the above errors in perception occur in "normal" people in everyday situations. Some types of perceptual distortions are known to occur to normal people under extraordinary circumstances. Pilots, under the influence of rapid acceleration, diving, etc. may incur perceptual problems because of physiological changes which must be taken into account in evaluation of their sightings s9Clark, B. and A. Graybiel. "The Breakoff Phenomenon: A Feeling of Separation from the Earth Experienced by Pilots at High Altitude," Journ. Aviation Medicine, 28, (1957), 121-126.. In some delirious or toxic states (for example, resulting from pneumonia, drug ingestion, alcohol withdrawal), the patient will misidentify a stimulus. The example of a patient calling the doctor or nurse by the name of some friend or relative is quite common. Emotionally disturbed persons are more apt to misperceive than are more balanced individuals, but it should be emphasized that numerous distortions can afflict even the most "normal" individual and unwittingly bias his reports.

Errors Resulting from Perception of Unreal Stimuli as Real

Such errors may be the result of psychopathology, as with the hallucinations of the psychotic. Unable to distinguish his inner productions from outer reality, he reports them as real. Anyone who has awakened abruptly from a dream not knowing where he is or whether or not he has been dreaming will recognize this feeling, which in the psychotic persists in the waking state, as if the psychotic were living in a waking dream. Such states may occur in healthy people under conditions of sensory deprivation: lone sailors have reported imaginary helmsmen who accompany them, poliomyelitis victims living in iron lungs have experienced hallucinations and delusions, often resembling traveling in vehicles resembling the respirator. Pilots may show detachment and confusion, s10Clark, B. and A. Graybiel. "The Breakoff Phenomenon: A Feeling of Separation from the Earth Experienced by Pilots at High Altitude," Journ. Aviation Medicine, 28, (1957), 121-126. et les camionneurs sur de longues distances pourraient développer une inattention, désorientation et des hallucinations s11McFarland, R. A. and R. D. Moore. "Human Factors in Highway Safety: A Review and Evaluation," New England Journ. Medicine, 256, (1957), 792-799.. Les opérateurs de radar montrent de serieuses fautes d'attention (Mackworth, 1950). De telles possibilités doivent être prises en considération dans l'évaluation de signalements faits par des personnes isolées. Des expériences d'isolement ont mis en évidence le développement d'hallucinations chez des sujets normaux. Pour une revue détaillée de ce sujet, voir Ruff s12Ruff, G. E. Isolation and Sensory Deprivation, in American Handbook of Psychiatry, Vol. III, ed. Arieti, New York: Basic Books, 1966.. De telles erreurs pourraient également intervenir chez des enfants, des personnes influençables, de faible intelligence, ainsi que celles sujettes à des visions.

Falsification délibérée

Les gens avec une pathologie de caractère sérieuse pourraient mentir pour de nombreuses raisons : renommée, notoriété, attention, argent. Ils constituent un problème non seulement pour la recherche sur les ovnis mais aussi pour les cours. Un exemple de ce type de personne est l'homme qui confesse un crime qu'il n'a pas commis.

L'effet de foule

Les exemples ci-dessus suggèrent certaines des nombreuses sources de distortion dans les perceptions d'individus. Mettez 2 individus ou plus ensemble, et les possibilités de distortion se multiplient. L'"hystérie de masse" est un concept familier. Charles Mackay (1967) écrivit un long volume en 1841 intitulé Illusions populaires extraordinaires et la folie des foules dans lesquel il relata nombre des folies populaires à travers les âges. 2 incidents sont d'un intérêt particulier pour les enquêteurs sur les ovnis parce qu'ils montrent clairement le rôle de la psychologie de foule en des moments de désastre imminent. Un est la grande panique à Londres de 1524 lors de laquelle des milliers de personnes quittèrent la ville pour éviter une grande innondation qu'un diseur-de-bonne-aventure avait prédit et qui, bien sûr, n'arriva jamais ; l'autre concerne une peste épidémique qui toucha Milan en 1630 ; la populace attribua le désastre au Diable (le théorie des germes était encore à plusieurs siècles de là) et un individu, brooding over the calamity until ce qu'il soit devenu fermement convaincu que les vol sauvages de sa propre fantaisie étaient réels, raconta avoir été emporté à travers les rues dans un chariot aérien, accompagné du Diable. Mackay note dans son avant-propos que le [volume] présent pourrait être consideré plus comme un miscellany d'illusions qu'une histoire -- 1 chapitre seulement dans la grand et terrible livre de la folie humaine qui reste encore à écrire, et dont Porson dit une fois jestingly qu'il l'écrirait en 500 volumes. On se demande si de futurs historiens pourraient se moquer aussi facilement de nos préoccupations des ovnis que nous le pouvons de la panique de Londres ou de la tentative d'expliquer la peste de Milan.

Sharif (1935) démontra dans une expérience classique l'influence que les gens ont sur les perceptions d'un autre. Il fit observer à un groupe un lumière stationnaire (comme celle que Guilford utilisa) dans une pièce obscurcie. Bien que stationnaire, la lumière semblait se déplacer, dans dans une direction différente pour chaque observateur. Les membres du groupe parvinrent finalement à réconcilier les perceptions divergentes initiales, et à s'accorder sur la direction dans laquelle la lumière se "déplaçait". Une telle aptitude à vérifier les impression de l'un avec les autres et d'obtenir un retour est un mécanisme sain et rend compte de l'un des manière dont nous confirmons nos perceptions. La non-accessibilité à ce mécanisme pourrait expliquer certaines des erreurs de perception intervenant dans des conditions de privation sensorielle.

Bien que le "retour" des autres soit généralement un mécanisme sain amenant à une correction des erreurs de perceptions, dans certaines conditions il peut mener à une exaggeration de perceptions erronées et à une "hystérie de masse." Un des exemples les plus connus dans les temps récents fut l' "invasion venant de Mars" en 1938, lorsque l'émission radio de Orson Welles d'un drame de science-fiction mit des milliers d'auditeurs d'une côte à l'autre dans un état de panique parce qu'ils croyaient que les martiens envahissaient réellement la Terre et que la fin du monde était proche. L'étude de cet incident par Cantril (1966), sous-titrée Une étude de la psychologie de la panique, est une lecture fascinante. Il pense que les anxiétés de l'époque, la crise économique et la menace de la guerre imminente furent le terreau de la panique. Il examine les facteurs psychologiques qui amenèrent certaines personnes à croire l'histoire vraie, tandis que d'autres la considéraient comme une fiction ou étaient capables de s'assurer de ce qui se passait (en vérifiant d'autres stations, téléphonant à la police ou aux journaux, etc.). Les croyants semblaient avoir un "terrain", un notion préconçue que Dieu s'apprêtait à mettre fin au monde, qu'une invasion était imminente, ou qui avaient des notions fantaisistes des possibilités de la science. Lorsqu'ils entendirent l'émission, ils l'acceptèrent immédiatement comme prouvant ce qu'ils avaient déjà cru, et tendirent à écarter tout élément qui pourrait infirmer leurs conclusions immédiates. D'autres firent preuve d'un piètre jugement à vérifier le show, utilisant des sources de confirmation non fiables et acceptant leur déclaration que l'émission était réelle. D'autres, sans aucun standard de jugement de leur part, acceptèrent sans poser de questions ce que disait la radio. Cantril conclut (p. 138) que ce groupe susceptible est caracterisé par :

un certain sentiment d'insuffisance personnelle. L'individu est incapable de s'appuyer sur ses propres ressources pour se voir à travers... [il] croit que sa vie et son destin dépendent très largement d'une orientation hors de son contrôle, ou du caprice de quelque être supernaturel. Tout ceci s'ajoute à un sentiment intense d'insécurité émotionnelle, qui est susceptible d'être augmentée si la situation environnant l'individu semble de plus en plus menaçante... [il] sera hautement susceptible à la suggestion lorsque il sera face-à-face avec une situation s'imposant à sa maigre indépendance d'esprit... quelle que soit la capacité critique qu'une personne puisse avoir normalement, elle est ineffective si dans quelque situation donnée ses sécurités émotionnelle sont si grandes qu'elles submergrent son bon jugement. De telles situations sont susceptibles d'être celles où l'individu lui-même ou quelque chose qui lui est cher sont menacés.

Another relevant study in social psychology is The June Bug: A Study of Hysterical Contagion (Kerckhoff, 1968). This is an account of a mysterious illness, manifested by nausea and a generalized rash, which afflicted some of the workers in a southern textile mill and was popularly attributed to the bite of an insect. The insect turned out to be non-existent and the symptoms were considered to be "hysterical." Only workers from one division of the factory were afflicted; the authors attributed the epidemic to the frustration and strain of a work situation (peculiar to the division in which the afflicted employees worked) from which there was no socially legitimate way to escape.

The June Bug contains an extensive review of the literature of "hysterical contagion," which is defined as "the dissemination of symptoms among a population in a situation where no manifest basis for the symptoms may be established," and where "a set of experiences or behaviors which are heavily laden with the emotion of fear of a mysterious force are disseminated through a collectivity ... [it is] inexplicable in terms of the usual standards of mechanical, chemical, or physiological causality." Smelser (1963) is quoted as defining a hysterical belief as one "empowering an ambiguous element in the environment with a generalized power to destroy.

The possibility of hysterical contagion must be kept in mind in the evaluation of some UFO sighting reports.

The psychiatric literature on UFOs should be mentioned briefly. In comparison with the vast popular literature, the psychiatric literature is surprisingly scant. The only extensive work of which this author is aware is a volume by the late Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Gustav Jung, entitled Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1959). Noting the tendency to welcome news about "saucers" and to suppress skepticism Jung raises the interesting question "why should it be more desirable for saucers to exist than not?" He feels that their appearance since World War II is a reflection of the anxieties of a nuclear age, in which man possesses the capability of actually destroying the world. Saucers may represent man's anxiety that the end of the world is here, or may represent a superhuman source of salvation. Historically, man's anxiety and his quest for salvation have been projected in many legendary and religious forms, but in an era of rapid technological and scientific advance including space flight, it is not suprising to find "scientific" rather than religious imagery. Other authors have mentioned the anxieties of the nuclear age and the personal search for magic as contributing to some of the belief in UFOs s13Meerloo, J. A. M. "The Flying Saucer Syndrome and The Need for Miracles," Journ. Am. Medical Assn., 203, (18 March 1968), 170..

Techniques médicales et psychologiques

It is clear that there are many factors which may influence perceptions and reporting. The investigator must be aware of possible sources of subjective interpretation by witnesses which may complicate the problem of arriving at the truth about UFOs. How can the investigator minimize such subjective error ? Walker's recommendations on establishing observer creditability are excellent. He examines in detail the anatomic, physiologic, and psychological factors influencing perception and their many aberrations, and recommends a detailed medical, ophthalmological, and a neurological examination, and in those individuals who show no organic impairment, a full psychiatric interview. The testimony of any observer who shows no significant medical or psychological con- ditions which might distort perception or interpretation must gain in creditability. I would suggest that, in addition to Walker's detailed recommendations, the use of psychological testing (especially projective tests such as the Rorschach and the Thematic Apperception Test) be used when recommended by the psychiatrist. A psychiatric interview, if made a routine part of the evaluation of observers, should carry no social stigma.

Two adjuncts to the psychiatric evaluation must be mentioned. The polygraph (lie detector) may occasionally be used where deliberate falsification is suspected.. The test is useful, but not fool-proof. The use of hypnosis has been reported in at least one of the popular accounts of UFO sightings to establish the "truth" of the observations s14Fuller, J. G. The Interrupted Journey, New York: The Dial Press, 1966.. Statements made under hypnosis are gradually acquiring greater legal acceptability s15Katz, J., J. Goldstein, and A. M. Dershowitz. Psychoanalysis, Psychiatry and the Law, New York: The Free Press, 1967. s16Bryan, W. J. Legal Aspects of Hypnosis, Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1962., but the fact remains that neither the evidence adduced from the use of a polygraph nor that obtained by hypnotic techniques can be relied upon as probative. Hypnosis has nothing to contribute to the routine evaluation of the creditability of the eye-witness. While it may occasionally be useful as a source of information, is cannot be used as a way of proving that the witness is telling the truth. Sometimes hypnosis can aid in bringing to conscious awareness, material that has been repressed. But persons who cannot distinguish their fantasies from reality will, under hypnosis only reveal more of the same fantasies. Their productions under hypnotic trance will demonstrate only that their reports are "real" to them, even though they may not in fact have any basis in objective reality. Wolberg s17Wolberg, L. R. Hypnotherapy, in American Handbook of Psychiatry d. Arieti, Vol. II, (1966), 1475. stated :

It is essential not to take at face value memories and experiences recounted in the trance. Generally, the productions elaborated by a person during hypnosis are a fusion of real experiences and fantasies. However, the fantasies in themselves are significant, perhaps, even more than the actual happenings with which they are blended. Asking a patient to recall only real events or to verify the material as true or false, reduces but does not remove the element of fantasy.

In addition to the evaluation of individual observers, it would seem wise in future investigations to make use of sociologists and psychologists in those cases where more than one person has made a sighting, to rule out the possibility of hysterical contagion, as well as to contribute to our knowledge of this condition. There should be opportunity to investigate both people who sight UFOs and those who do not.

This chapter raises more questions than it answers. There are many interesting psychological questions: Why have some fervid "believers" in UFOs never seen one? Why do some persons who see an UFO regard it as simply an unidentified aerial phenomenon, while others are sure it is a "space vehicle ?" Why do some refuse to accept evidence that what they saw was really an airplane, weather balloon, etc., while others readily accept such explanations? The answers to such questions must await future research. It was not the purpose of the project to explore the psychology of UFO sighters, but rather to explore the nature of the UFOs themselves.

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