The Surprising Psychology of UFO Reporting

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Encounter in the desert

Page, Arizona, 1997

Lying on the warm, red desert sand, gazing up at the stars in the crystal-clear night, I watched satellites in low Earth orbit swiftly transit above me—objects that looked like stars but weren’t—following predictable, straight trajectories unlike the flash of meteors and decidedly faster than the ultraslow movement of stars with the Earth’s rotation.

Then, my heart skipped a beat as one of the satellites, at least that’s what I thought it was, made an abrupt right-angle turn, roughly two degrees of visual angle (the width of my thumb at arm’s length), shifting its trajectory and then proceeding straight again towards the far horizon.

My scientist’s brain tried to make sense of what I’d just seen, calculating that the G forces of making such a startling change in direction would have torn any man-made satellite to pieces (moving laterally about 7 miles in a small fraction of a second) if, indeed, human technology could devise a propulsion system capable of causing such a move in low Earth orbit in the first place.

Had I just seen a UFO? Was it man-made, some kind of unknown natural phenomena, or… something not of this world?

Was I crazy, or what?

The psychology of UFO or UAP reporting

Studies of people who report seeing unidentified flying objects or unidentified aerial phenomena (1) show (thankfully for me) that very few such individuals exhibit psychopathology or are simply trying to grab attention or sell their stories for financial gain. Rather, researchers concluded that the vast majority of those who report seeing extraordinary aerial phenomena truly believe what they saw was real and that, in fact, what they saw was not a hallucination.

Quirks of perceptual psychology can explain some of the reporting. In my case, for instance, my brain assumed that the pinpoint of light I was seeing was at least a few hundred miles away so that a rapid lateral movement of two degrees of visual angle seemed like an astonishingly large excursion (about 7 miles) in a very short time. But the “satellite” could have been running light on a drone, flying much, much closer to me (hundreds of feet instead of hundreds of miles), in which case, the abrupt right-angle turn that I witnessed, although impressive, did not require otherworldly technology.

This kind of distance vs. motion optical illusion could account for many of the reports of extraordinary flight patterns.

But, as the recent congressional testimony of military pilots who recorded encounters with UFOs (including range-to-target data) shows, optical illusions can’t account for all of the sightings.

Putting aside for the moment the possibility that some UFO reports truly describe either alien or ultra-advanced human technology (so that the answers lie not in psychology but in cosmology or technology), what other psychological factors correlate with UFO reporting?

One psychological correlate, according to Gow et al. in their article Fantasy Proneness and Other Psychological Correlates of UFO Experience (1), is a tendency of reporters to have a richer fantasy life than those who do not report UFOs. This doesn’t mean, according to the study’s authors, that UFO reporters make up their encounters, only that such individuals often had more vivid and frequent fantasies than the general population.

Another factor that correlated with UFO reporting was the Big Five personality trait of openness, suggesting that UFO reporters were less likely than others to discount their experience as somehow routine or normal and remained open to the possibility that something truly extraordinary had happened to them.

Why it matters

This last point about openness brings up an issue much larger than UFO reporting: how we process unfamiliar and unexpected information and how we view people who hold exotic beliefs or ideas that diverge radically from our own.

The history of science shows that, before the fact, the biggest breakthroughs seem outright nuts. For instance, those who theorized continental drift, the asteroid extinction of dinosaurs, the fact that bacteria cause ulcers, or that mass and energy warp space-time (general relativity) were considered fringe whackos until their important theories were ultimately proven correct.

Due to a psychological process called perceptual assimilation (2), in which we unconsciously transform extraordinary experiences into ordinary, familiar ones, most of us can’t (or won’t) grasp such earth-shattering ideas.

This means that we are prone not only to discount our own experiences of the extraordinary but also to discount (if not denigrate) the extraordinary experiences and ideas of others.

So, whether it’s the exotic technology of UFOs or other paradigm-shifting discoveries, we are likely to be much slower than we ought to be to acknowledge and act upon unexpected, unfamiliar phenomena. Some would argue COVID fell into this category, and the filmmakers behind Don’t Look Up assert that Climate change is another example.

And the exponential advance of science (AI, genetic engineering, quantum computing, to name a few) suggests that we will likely encounter the extraordinary at an accelerated rate in the near future.

Will we be ready for a radically different future when it arrives? It is hard to say, but the few hearty souls who are ready are, as likely as not, going to be the type that… report seeing UFOs.

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