Chapter 3

Psychological Aspects of UFO Reports

Mark W. Rhine

0. Introduction
1. Errors Resulting from Misidentification of Real Stimuli
2. Errors Resulting from Perception of Unreal Stimuli as Real
3. Deliberate Falsification
4. The Crowd Effect
5. Medical and Psychological Techniques
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0. Introduction

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 (1968) 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 (Berelson, 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 VI, Chapter 1 and 2);

  2. unreal stimuli perceived as real; and

  3. deliberate falsification.


1. 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 (1929) 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:

optical illusion

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 (Bruner, 1947). Bruner showed that coins marked with a dollar sign were rated larger in size than equal coins marked with a swastika (Bruner, 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; Forgus, 1966; Vernon, 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 (McGinnies, 1958).


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 (Clark, 1957). 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.


2. 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, (Clark, 1957) and long-distance truck drivers may develop inattention, disorientation, and hallucinations (McFarland, 1957). Radar operators show serious lapses of attention (Mackworth, 1950). Such possibilities must be considered in evaluating the reports of isolated people. Isolation experiments have shown the development of hallucinations in normal subjects. For an extensive review of this subject, see Ruff (1966). Such errors may also occur in children, in suggestible people, in persons of low intelligence, and in those subject to visions.



3. Deliberate Falsification

People with serious character pathology may lie for many reasons: fame, notoriety, attention, money. They constitute a problem not only to UFO research but to the courts. An example of this type of person is the man who confesses to a crime which he did not commit.


4. The Crowd Effect

The above examples suggest some of the many sources of distortion in the perceptions of individuals. Put two or more individuals together, and the possibilities for distortion multiply. "Mass hysteria" is a familiar concept. Charles Mackay (1967) wrote a lengthy volume in 1841 entitled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds in which he recounted many of the popular follies through the ages. Two incidents are of particular interest to UFO investigators because they show clearly the role of crowd psychology in times of imminent disaster one is the great London panic of 1524 in which thousands left the city to avoid a great flood which a fortune-teller predicted and which, of course, never occurred; the other concerns an epidemic plague which afflicted Milan in 1630; the populace attributed the disaster to the Devil (the germ theory was still several centuries off), and one individual, brooding over the calamity until "he became firmly convinced that the wild flights of his own fancy were realities," related being swept through the streets in an air-borne chariot, accompanied by the Devil. Mackay notes in his foreword that "the present [volume] may be considered more a miscellany of delusions than a history--a chapter only in the great and awful book of human folly which yet remains to be written, and which Porson once jestingly said he would write in 500 volumes." One wonders if future historians may laugh as readily at our concerns about UFOs as we can about the London panic or the attempts to explain the plague of Milan.

Sharif (1935) demonstrated in a classic experiment the influence people have on one another's perceptions. He had a group of people observe a stationary light (such as Guilford used) in a darkened room. Although stationary, the light appeared to move, and in a different direction to each observer. The members of the group were able to eventually reconcile the initially divergent perceptions, and to agree


in what direction the light was "moving." Such ability to check out one's impressions with others and to get feedback is a healthy mechanism and accounts for one of the ways in which we confirm our perceptions. The unavailability of this mechanism may account for some of the misperception that occurs under conditions of sensory deprivation.

Although "feedback" from others is usually a healthy mechanism leading to a correction of misperceptions, under certain conditions it may lead to an exaggeration of faulty perceptions and to "mass hysteria." One of the best known examples in recent times was the "invasion from Mars" in 1938, when Orson Welles' radio broadcast of a science-fiction drama had thousands of listeners from coast-to-coast in a state of panic because they believed the Martians were really invading the earth and that the end of the world was at hand. Cantril's study (1966) of this incident, subtitled A Study in the Psychology of Panic, makes fascinating reading. He feels the anxieties of the times, the economic depression, and the imminent threat of war set the stage for the panic. He examines the psychological factors which made some people believe the broadcast to be true, whereas others regarded it as fiction or were able to ascertain what was happening (by checking other stations, phoning the police or newspapers, etc.). The believers seemed to have a "set," a preconceived notion that God was going to end the world, that an invasion was imminent, or had some fanciful notions about the possibilities of science. When they heard the broadcast, they immediately accepted it as proving what they had already believed, and tended to disregard any evidence which might disprove their immediate conclusions. Others showed poor judgment in checking out the show, using unreliable sources of confirmation and accepting their statement that the broadcast was real. Others, with no standard of judgment of their own, accepted without question what the radio said. Cantril concludes (p. 138) that this susceptible group is characterized by:

a certain feeling of personal inadequacy. The individual is unable to rely on his own resources to see him through ... [he] believes his life and fate are


very largely dependent on some focus beyond his control, or on the whim of some supernatural being. All this adds up to an intense feeling of emotional insecurity, one which is likely to be augmented as the situation surrounding the individual appears more and more threatening ... [he] will be highly susceptible to suggestion when he is face-to-face with a situation that taxes his own meager selfreliance ... whatever critical ability a person may normally have, it is ineffective if in any given situation his emotional securities are so great that they overwhelm his good judgment. Such situations are likely to be those where the individual himself or something dear to him are threatened.

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, C. G. 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 (Meerloo, 1968).


5. Medical and Psychological Techniques

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 (Fuller, 1966). Statements made under hypnosis are gradually acquiring greater legal acceptability (Katz, 1967; Bryan, 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 (1966) 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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