We may never know for certain whether there is intelligent life on other planets. Even if any life outside Earth does exist, scientists pay little credence to the notion that life from other planets has already paid us a visit. Despite this skepticism from biologists, astronomers, and physicists, millions of believers in UFOs and alien visitations pursue the question with almost religious zeal. Even more, maybe even you, think that intelligent life exists on other planets. Why is it that so many people are so convinced of events that, as of now, bear so little scientific credibility?
If you are one of those millions of ardent believers in UFOs, you have most likely gone through all of the arguments with your non-believing friends and relatives many times. Perhaps you’ve wondered why they don’t agree with you when the evidence seems so compelling to you. On the other hand, if you’ve had to stand your ground against a true UFO enthusiast, you’ve probably been just as confused and concerned.
Whatever your position on the topic, it’s difficult to resist the arguments put forth on such documentary staples as “UFO Files,” “Alien Hunters,” and “Ancient Aliens.” After all, how did the ancient Egyptians really haul those massive blocks up to the tops of the Pyramids? What intervention, divine or other-worldly, taught the Mayans how to construct their doom-foretelling calendar? And none other than the Twentieth Century’s greatest thinker, Albert Einstein, showed us that time travel is theoretically possible if we can beat the speed of light. Who can argue with claims based on such solid scientific arguments?
Many of us may enjoy thinking about these possibilities, even if it’s just to breeze through the latest sci-fi novel to pass the time on our lunch hours or commutes. Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T” capitalize on the compelling emotional side to UFO beliefs. And the enduring popularity of the Star Trek television show and movies suggests that some of us take these forms of entertainment very seriously. The question becomes one of drawing the line between fantasy and conviction. It’s one thing to don a Dr. Spock costume every Halloween and quite another to go through the time, energy, and expense to attend a UFO convention.
UFO enthusiasts may regard their non-believing counterparts as closed-minded, narrow, and rigid. Non-believers, in turn, think of enthusiasts as unbalanced in the opposite direction and perhaps as slightly delusional. Fortunately, we don’t need to rely on stereotypes but instead can look to new evidence from the labs of several international scientists who’ve decided to put these stereotypes to the test.
To study the factors related to extraterrestrial beliefs, Psychologist Viren Swami of the University of Westminster and Malaysia University teamed up with University of Vienna psychologists Jacob Pietschnig, Stefan Stieger, and Martin Voracek (Swami et al., 2011). They began by using a test designed in an earlier study by Swami and collaborators (2009) called the Extraterrestrial Beliefs Scale (EBS). The 37 items on the EBS fall into 3 sub-tests that measure general beliefs about extraterrestrial life, attitudes toward the importance of scientific research on the topic, and beliefs in alien visitation, including beliefs that governments are participating in cover-ups to mask the evidence of alien visitation. Once they established the scale’s psychological properties, asking for participation from 560 British and Austrian adults, Swami and his collaborators (2011) were ready to see how its scores related to personality in a new sample of over 430 European adults.
Swami and his collaborators were most interested in the items on the EBS that measure beliefs in alien visitation and cover-ups. They expected that people with the strongest beliefs in visitation and government cover-ups would also be most likely to be highly superstitious. Using a test called the “Australian Sheep-Goat Scale,” the researchers assessed beliefs in paranormal activities and experiences such as magical thinking, extrasensory perception, psychokinesis (the ability to move objects by thinking), and belief in the afterlife. The reason the scale has this metaphorical name is that it separates “sheep” (those who believe in paranormal activity) from “goats” (the skeptics). It would make sense that people who believe in alien visitation and coverups might also hold the “sheeplike” beliefs in alien visitation.
Swami and his team also administered a version of the Five Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI) to test the overall personality traits of people in relation to their beliefs in alien visitation. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, Swami’s team asked participants to complete a scale in which they stated whether they have schizophrenic-like symptoms (hallucinations, delusions, disordered thinking, and limited social networks). They administered this “schizotypy” scale based on evidence from previous studies showing that people who have unusual perceptual experiences (such as hallucinations) are also more likely to believe in the paranormal and therefore might be more likely to hold alien visitation beliefs as well. Finally, the researchers measured basic demographics including age, gender, education, and religious orientation.
After crunching the numbers, Swami and his co-authors concluded that the strongest believers in alien visitations and cover-ups were in fact more likely to have paranormal and superstitious beliefs particularly beliefs in ESP, the afterlife, and to have had unusual perceptual experiences. The UFO believers were also likely to be high on the personality factor of “Openness to Experience,” meaning that they were high on such qualities as willingness to fantasize, explore new ideas, and try out new things. Men and women were equally likely to endorse beliefs in alien visitation and cover-ups, and adults with higher education were lower in their extraterrestrial beliefs. Overall, the average endorsement of the EBS items was low (approximately a 2 on a 5-point scale) as were most scores on the Sheep-Goat and schizotypy scales. The highest score (2.5) was on the belief in afterlife scale. Nevertheless, enough people endorsed the EBS items to allow the researchers to detect these significant patterns.
Another disclaimer should also have popped into your mind which is that the Swami study was correlational. Because of this, we don’t know whether the chain of relationships which lead from personality to beliefs in UFOs and government coverups. Also, the samples were not completely randomly selected, and they also came from one or two countries in Europe. On the positive side, though, the samples were not the usual college-student crowd that we see in most studies of social psychology and personality. We might not be able to say what causes beliefs in UFOs and other related ideas. We can conclude that people who strongly endorse beliefs about the validity of alien visitations and coverups have more open minds toward fantasy, admit to having unusual perceptual experiences, and are confident that an afterlife awaits us.
Now, it’s time to put your own extraterrestrial beliefs to the test. See how you would answer these sample items from the EBS. You can rate yourself on a 1 to 7 scale, with 1 for strongly disagree to 7 for strongly agree:
The items that were most strongly related to belief in alien invasion and coverups were items 1-6 among the sample as a whole, and the average on the 7-point rating scale for these items was 2.5. In general, participants were more willing to agree with other items on the EBS with the highest agreement (5.9) for the statement: “Just because we have no evidence of extraterrestrial life does not mean that such life does not exist.” Such a statement might have been uttered by none other than the legendary scientist Carl Sagan who, though doubting heavily the probability of life on other planets, never ruled it out completely. He also called for the government to release its files on UFO sightings. The support of legitimate scientists no doubt makes it more likely that people are willing to agree with such general statements about life on other planets.
To sum up, the findings of the Swami studies give us insight into who believes in alien visitations and government coverups. Having an open mind to new experiences is an important part of the equation. However, even the most fervent UFO advocates can benefit from a dose of healthy skepticism in critically evaluating the scientific evidence. It’s possible that the truth is “out there,” but it’s important to put your search for it into perspective.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012
Swami, V., Furnham, A., Haubner, T., Stieger, S., & Voracek, M. (2009). The truth is out there: The structure of beliefs about extraterrestrial life among Austrian and British respondents. The Journal Of Social Psychology, 149(1), 29-43. doi:10.3200/SOCP.149.1.29-43
Swami, V., Pietschnig, J., Stieger, S., & Voracek, M. (2011). Alien psychology: Associations between extraterrestrial beliefs and paranormal ideation, superstitious beliefs, schizotypy, and the Big Five personality factors. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25(4), 647-653. doi:10.1002/acp.1736