Psychological Studies on Abduction Experiencers
© Kathleen Marden
The shift from the scientific study of the evidence to social research
A few years ago, I felt perplexed by the failure of physical science to take UFOs and alien abductions seriously enough to fund academic research studies on the evidence that these phenomena might be real and not imaginary. As part of my investigation, it seemed prudent to explore the official channels that diverted funding away from the scientific investigation of physical evidence to the study of those who report UFO encounters by social scientists. I discovered an orchestrated plan through official channels to effectively take the science out of UFO research on official levels. The following is an updated version of a paper I presented at MUFON’s 2010 MUFON International Symposium.
In 1966, the Air Force Science Advisory Board’s Ad Hoc Committee convened to review Project Blue Book, ostensibly in an effort to improve it. (Also in 1966, John G. Fuller’s Incident at Exeter and The Interrupted Journey hit the New York Times Bestseller list.) However, the government’s own documents that have been acquired through FOIA requests, indicate that its intent was to end the project by claiming that there is no evidence to support the belief that UFOs are of extraterrestrial origin and that they did not pose a threat to national security.
In October 1966, the Secretary of Defense announced the committee’s decision to appoint Edward U. Condon, PhD, a respected physicist at the University of Colorado to spearhead a formal study on unidentified flying objects, which resulted in the 1969 “University of Colorado Report on Unidentified Flying Objects”. Ufologist’s high hopes for an objective study diminished when Condon made a series of negative public statements about the project, avoided cases that warranted serious attention and personally focused upon “crackpot” cases.
At the project’s inception in 1966, Robert J. Low, assistant dean of the graduate school wrote to university officials Thurston Manning and E. James Archer, “In order to undertake such a project, one would have to approach it objectively. That is, one has to admit the possibility that such things as UFOs exist. It is not respectable to give serious consideration to such a possibility…The very act of admitting these possibilities just as possibilities puts us beyond the pale…Our study would be conducted almost exclusively by non-believers who, although they couldn’t possibly prove a negative result, could and probably would add an impressive body of evidence that there is no reality to the observations. The trick would be, I think, to describe the project so that, to the public, it would appear to be a totally objective study but, to the scientific community, would present the image of a group on non-believers trying their best to be objective but having an almost zero expectation of finding a saucer…One way to do this would be to stress investigation, not of the physical phenomena, but rather of the people who do the observing—the psychology and sociology of persons and groups who report seeing UFOs…I can’t imagine a paper coming out of the study that would be publishable in a prestigious physical science journal. I can quite easily imagine, however, that psychologists, sociologists and psychiatrists might well generate scholarly publications as a result of their investigations of saucer observers.”(1)
Levine handed the memo to David R. Saunders, PhD, a Condon Committee key staff member. In turn the memo found its way to writer John G. Fuller. His expose’ in the May 14, 1968 issue of LOOK Magazine titled “Flying Saucer Fiasco: The half-million-dollar cover-up on whether UFOs really exist” blew the project wide open, enraged ufologists, and troubled American taxpayers. Saunders and Levine were expelled from the project.
In keeping with his negative tone, at the end of the study Condon issued the following statement: “Nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge.…we consider it safe to assume that no ILE (intelligent life elsewhere) outside of our solar system has any possibility of visiting Earth in the next 10,000 years.”(2)
Despite the official statement made by Edward Condon that the committee found no evidence to justify a belief that extraterrestrial visitors have penetrated our skies, the special UFO subcommittee of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics found that 30 percent of the 117 cases studied in detail could not be identified.
The subsequent National Academy of Science’s report on the Condon Study states, “The least likely explanation for UFOs is the hypothesis of extraterrestrial visitations by intelligent beings”. Is it any wonder that Section 7 of the report states that UFO reports “should be of interest to social scientists”? This taken together with the “trick memo” suggests that project’s conclusions and recommendations might have been predetermined before even one evidentiary file had been examined. It is no surprise that today social scientists receive grants to engage in academic studies on self reported alien abductees in an academic setting; not physical scientists such as the late James McDonald, PhD.
Social Science theories, hypotheses and research findings
Status Inconsistency Theory:
Dating back to the early 1970s, numerous social scientists have generated scholarly articles about the special personality characteristics of saucer observers. The earliest post-Condon article by a social scientist that I could locate appeared in the November 6, 1970 issue of the prestigious peer reviewed journal Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In “Status Inconsistency Theory and Flying Saucer Sightings”, Donald I. Warren, from the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan, used sociological theory and statistics to postulate that there is an elevated level of extraterrestrial visitation belief among individuals who are frustrated by their failure to achieve economic and/or occupational status in proportion to their educational levels. Social inconsistency, he states, leads to “withdrawal, defeatism and retreat from the larger society.”(3) He proposes that “marginal status persons” as a result of their feelings of alienation and distrust of the system, believe flying saucers represent extraterrestrial craft as a rejection of society’s dominant values. Therefore, in Warren’s opinion, UFO sightings are but a manifestation of marginalized social status and confused thinking.
Warren’s empirical analysis was based upon the 1966 Gallup poll information pertaining to UFOs, educational attainment, economic status and occupational level. The question asked by the Gallup Poll (sample size=1575) was “Have you, yourself, ever seen anything you thought was a flying saucer?” Five percent of all respondents on the 1966 Gallup Poll of adults twenty-one and older replied in the affirmative. For his study, Warren eliminated all women and black men because he relegated both groups to the status inconsistent/marginal category. For the purpose of his study, he divided the remaining white male group into three categories: status consistent, moderately status inconsistent and sharply status inconsistent. Warren’s statistical analysis found that moderately and sharply status inconsistent white males (those with low income but moderate to high educational attainment) were more likely to report observing at least one object that they believed was a flying saucer. The men with the highest level of educational attainment but the lowest income or occupational status were most likely to report flying saucer sightings on the poll.
There were several problems with Warren’s conclusions. First, had Warren included female and African American responses, his theory would have been defeated because status consistents outnumbered status inconsistents in reporting UFO sightings on the Gallup poll. Also he did not consider the white males’ age groupings. College students and retired men are two groups that quite possibly register as status inconsistent. They often work part-time in jobs below their educational and occupational levels.
Several letters to the editor appeared in the March 12, 1971 issue of Science which called into question Warren’s conclusions. G.L. Cowgill, from the Anthropology Department at Brandeis University, argued that Warren’s research did not present statistically significant evidence in support of his hypothesis, adding that the strong academic job market would have provided jobs to the highly educated men who desired them. In the same section, Peter Dubno, Graduate School of Business Administration, NY University, offered a viable refutation to Warren’s conclusions. He found a very important variable that Warren had failed to consider: status inconsistent men from rural areas were more likely to report sightings than their urban counterparts. Therefore rural residence correlates with flying saucer sightings more than status inconsistency. Additionally, those who live in rural areas are more likely to be status inconsistent than those who reside in the city.
Warren later attempted to replicate his findings but failed. (4) (This information was not published). He did however find that general status level correlates positively with UFO experiences. In 1979, Phillis Fox (Cal. State) failed in her attempt to replicate Warren’s Status Inconsistency Theory. Despite the failure of Warren’s theory debunkers have not ceased in citing status inconsistency as a causal factor in UFO sightings.
Although a few social scientists’ scholarly articles had appeared in prestigious peer reviewed journals during the 1970s (“Supernatural Beliefs of Graduate Students” Nature, 1971, “Physical Fairyland” Nature, 1972, and “Social Intelligence about Anomalies: The Case of UFOs in Social Studies of Science, 1977), the NAS’s recommendation did not gain momentum until the mid-1980s. In 1984, Troy Zimmer wrote “Social Psychological Correlates of Possible UFO Sightings in The Journal of Social Psychology and Alvin Lawson, an English professor wrote “Perinatal Imagery in UFO Abductions Reports in The Journal of Psychohistory. By 1985, Deviant Behavior published Troy Zimmer’s article, “Belief in UFOs as Alternative Reality, Cultural Rejection or Disturbed Psyche.
Zimmer (Cal. State) made an interesting point in his discussion of Phillis Fox’s surveys of small communities regarding belief that some UFOs are of extraterrestrial origin. Fox found that exposure to UFO media (comic books, science fiction movies, magazine articles, etc.) did not correlate to belief in UFOs as alien spacecraft. (Despite this finding, Schaeffer, Menzel, Taves and numerous debunkers contend that media coverage is a leading factor in UFO belief.) In a 1979 study, Fox found that it is belief in the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, combined with knowledge about the space program, and unidentified flying objects that cannot be explained in prosaic terms that causes people to believe that some UFOs are extraterrestrial craft.
Zimmer surveyed 475 college undergraduates regarding their belief in UFOs. Questions pertained to whether or not they or anyone they knew had ever seen a UFO, their interest in the subject, and their interest in UFO related media. They were also queried about their belief in the occult and their attitudes in reference to a malevolent world view, cultural rejection and personal well-being. (5) In an additional category, questions pertained to UFO believers’ general happiness and social adjustment compared to non-believers. UFO belief correlated positively with the belief that intelligent life exists somewhere else in the universe. Many believed that astrology is accurate and that the occult exists. The undergraduate believers were often science fiction fans and enjoyed talking about UFOs. There was a negative correlation between UFO belief and social or psychological maladjustment. Believers were no more likely than the “unsure” group to be disturbed, culturally alienated or cynical. (6)
Several high profile abduction reports during the 1970s shifted the focus from the study of UFO observers to the psychosocial aspects of alien abduction. Many of the early abductions were accompanied by credible evidence, including physical evidence, multiple witness testimony, normal psychological profiles, polygraph exams that indicated no deception, and correlating hypnotic recall regarding details about the experience that could not have been the result of information contamination.
The momentum increased during the 1980s and 1990s, when reports emerged from individuals claiming to have been kidnapped by nonhumans, often from their bedrooms during the night. The amorphous nature of the latter abductions and academic psychologist’s incredulous attitudes about the existence of physical evidence resulted in several experimental studies of alleged alien abductees. Additionally, psychologists and debunkers (often with no formal training in psychology) produced scholarly articles which introduced a series of hypotheses designed to explain the phenomenon as a psychological aberration. Most ignored the reported evidence (scars, missing time, waking up in a stranger’s clothing, conscious recollection of an event, waking up locked outside one’s house, PTSD following an alleged experience, correlating data, etc.). Instead they addressed the issue, not of alien abduction per se, but of the purported psychological features that could lead to the” misguided belief” that UFOs and alien abductions are real. Major mental illness, hypnosis, and a variety of personality traits and disorders have all been offered as psychological explanations for alien abduction. Sometimes, biased researchers have been quite creative in their attempts to explain alien abduction and have devoted considerable time to their efforts to back up conjecture with personality inventories and psychological experiments. Academia seldom examines the scientific evidence that suggests some abductions by extraterrestrial beings could be real. Nor does it measure the probability of abduction assessed on a case by case basis.
Years of systematic study has indicated that alleged alien abductees exhibit no more psychopathology than the general population. They come from all societal levels from all over the world, ranging from peasant farmers to professionally prominent individuals. In the absence of a primary psychiatric disorder, experimental psychologists have searched for alternative psychological explanations for the belief that one has been abducted by aliens. Several experimental studies over the past thirty years have attempted to delineate personality traits that separate UFO abduction experiencers from non-experiencers, such as boundary deficit disorder, fantasy proneness, hallucinations, sleep anomalies, confabulation in hypnosis, false memory syndrome, absorption of cultural mythos, etcetera. Personality disorders are characterized as traits that cause people to feel and behave in socially distressing ways. They may be negative, hostile, needy, or exhibit antisocial behavior. People with personality disorders carry these traits throughout their lifetime, but they may fluctuate in terms of symptoms and intensity. In this section we will explore a variety of personality disorders and the research findings relating to the personalities of self identified abductees, as well as additional psychological hypotheses regarding the abduction phenomenon.
Fantasy Prone Personality and Dissociative States:
In 1981, Theodore .X. Barber and Sheryl. C. Wilson (Massachusetts), in a study designed to better understand hypnotic suggestibility, coined the term “fantasy prone personality” to describe a segment of the adult population (approximately 4%) that spends most of its time engaged in magical thinking and has the tendency to mix and confuse fantasies with real experiences. Their conclusions were based upon interviews and a screening measure for hypnotic suggestibility with 27 female daydreamers, who were excellent hypnotic subjects, and 25 who were not. They wrote that 65% of fantasy-prone individuals sometimes confuse fantasies they have daydreamed with reality, particularly when they pertain to conversations with loved ones. Fantasy prone subjects reported childhood experiences in which they fantasized their dolls and stuffed animals were real or where they pretended they were someone else. Most vivid daydreamers reported that their ability to focus intensely upon their imaginings grew out of loneliness or boredom during childhood. Many reported having imaginary playmates or believing in fairies or guardian angels. Although fantasy play is common in early childhood, according to Wilson and Barber, fantasy prone individuals carry this intense daydreaming pattern into adulthood. Additionally, fantasy prone individuals often reported the belief that they have psychic abilities, the ability to heal others, and out of body experiences.
Studies have indicated that some fantasy prone individuals were encouraged to develop childhood fantasies by a significant adult, or did so as a way to escape from unpleasant childhood experiences. Wilson and Barber developed the “Inventory of Childhood Memories and Imaginings”, a 52 item questionnaire, as a method of screening for hypnotic suggestibility. (It might be more an indication of one’s ability to focus and concentrate). But somewhere along the line, psychologists adopted it as a measure of fantasy proneness among abductees. As a result, the paranormal experiences reported by abductees have been interpreted as symptoms of fantasy proneness. If we are to accept the Wilson/Barber scale as a measure of fantasy proneness among abductees, we must first adopt the a priori belief that UFO abduction and psi phenomena are impossible despite the evidence to the contrary. (See Chapter 12 in Science Was Wrong by Friedman & Marden for psi meta-analyses findings).
Subsequently, George Ganaway, (Emory U. psychiatrist dissociative disorders specialist), in a 1989 article on multiple personality disorder and its variants, argued that television, movies and books in combination with the influence of a hypnotist might lead certain vulnerable individuals to believe they have been abducted by aliens when they have not. Thus, MPD sufferers might fill in their lifelong periods of amnesia with fantasy generated memories of alien abduction as a means of shielding themselves from memories of extreme childhood physical or sexual abuse. (7)
An ambitious 1990 study by Kenneth Ring and Christopher J. Rosing (U. of Connecticut), 264 participants completed a battery of personality screenings in an attempt to assess the psychological factors that give some individuals the propensity to experience UFO abduction. R & R tested abductees, near death experiencers, a control group of individuals who only expressed an interest in UFOs, and a control group with an interest in NDEs. They found that suspected abductees were no more fantasy prone than the control groups. However, the abductee group reported childhood experiences with psychic phenomena, non-physical beings and alternate realities (the ability to see into other realities or to see beings that others are not aware of).(8) This is a frequently reported trait among abductees who report they've been taken since childhood, including those categorized as best evidence cases.
The Home Environment Inventory, an assessment designed to measure childhood abuse, neglect and trauma, returned statistically significant results in abductee and NDE groups. We know that severe physical or sexual abuse leads to trauma. In order to construct a psychological defense to shield themselves from the horrible reality of their circumstances, victims often use dissociation as a coping mechanism. Dissociative states fall along a continuum ranging from mild spacing out or losing time that they can’t account for, to multiple personality disorder. Both groups scored significantly higher on psychological inventories designed to test elevated levels of dissociation. Given the elevated rate of self reported childhood abuse, it is reasonable to suspect that some self reported abductions, without evidence, have roots within the human psyche. One must also consider the possibility that experiencers who have endured numerous terrifying abduction experiences might internally generate dissociation as a coping mechanism.
Dr. Robert LeLieuvre (Lester Valez and Michael Freeman), spearheaded the Omega 3 project in 2010, to test Ring/Rosen’s findings. Seventy-one abduction experiencers and fifty-one people with an interest in abduction phenomena, but not direct contact comprised the experiential and control groups. Eight instruments from the Kenneth Ring Omega Project study and two from Persinger’s study made up the questionnaire that covered physiological, psychological and philosophical areas. The study found that the participants in both groups were no more fantasy prone than the general population. However, the experiential group demonstrated a greater interest in alien contact and this changed the participants’ worldviews. They became more sensitive to altered states of consciousness; reported early psi experiences; higher rates of stress; conflict and tension as adults and psychosocial tension as children; greater tendencies toward dissociation as a coping style; a shift toward spiritual beliefs; and concerns for our planet’s ecology.
These finding do not suggest that ET contact is imaginary. (9) (This was borne out by the Marden-Stoner Commonalities Study, 2012) Additional research designed to test the hypothesis that UFO abductees are fantasy prone has produced largely negative results with one exception. In a 1991 study, Robert E. Bartholomew (James Cook University), Keith Basterfield (UFO Research Australia) and George Howard (University of Notre Dame) discovered that 87% (N=132) of the self reported contactees/abductees they interviewed had one or more of the major symptoms of fantasy-prone personality listed on the Wilson/Barber scale. Their findings were based upon the biographical reports of 152 self identified contactees/abductees, and no psychometric measures were employed to assess personality traits. The trait that most abductees had in common was the reporting of psychic phenomena. (10) This is a contentious finding due to its subjective nature. It appears that reports of psychic phenomena and alternate realities have been misinterpreted as fantasy proneness by some academic psychologists.
Additionally, a 1991 study by Mark Rodeghier (U. of Illinois), Jeff Goodpastor (Gateway Technical College) and Sandra Blatterbauer (CUFOS) on subjects who met clearly defined criteria for an abduction experience, found no difference in the Inventory of Childhood Memories and Imaginings score for alleged abductees and the general populace.
Nicholas Spanos, PA Cross, K. Dickson and SC DuBreuil (Carleton University) administered an extensive battery of scales to a 19 individuals who reported observing erratically moving lights in the sky that they interpreted as UFOs and 20 individuals who reported experiencing a close encounter with or abduction by non-human entities. Their finding indicates that those who report UFO experiences, even missing time and telepathic communication with aliens, are no more fantasy prone than the general population. However, those with higher scores on the fantasy proneness scale reported more elaborate abduction experiences.
In 2005, arch skeptic Christopher French (England) administered the Wilson/Barber scale, without additional personality screenings to 19 self reported abductees and 19 controls. He found a significantly higher rate of “fantasy proneness” among the self identified abductees. As discussed above, it is my opinion that we cannot accept the Wilson/Barber scale as an accurate measure of fantasy proneness among abductees. (I have noted what appears to be systematic bias in the research findings of members of skeptical societies. When research findings are inconsistent with general trends among researchers, one is advised to examine the individual's agenda and personal beliefs.)
Boundary Deficit Disorder:
In a 1988 scholarly paper, Martin Kottmeyer, a Midwestern farmer and vocal skeptic, who according to an online biographical profile “defies the idea that anyone should hold academic credentials in order to rationally tackle cultural mysteries”, proposed boundary deficit disorder as a possible explanation for alien abduction. Although he is not a behavioral scientist, his article gained widespread acceptance within debunking groups and came to the attention of experimental psychologist Nicholas Spanos, PhD. Kottmeyer hypothesizes, based upon Hartmann’s (1984) study of college students who experience frequent nightmares, that alien abductees in all probability, exhibit boundary deficit symptoms, such as difficulty in differentiating between fantasy and reality, poor sense of self, poor social adaptation with frequent feelings of rejection, suicidal tendencies, feelings of powerlessness, and unusual alertness to sights, sounds and sensations. In 1993, Spanos et al administered five psychometric scales to a control group and to close encounter subjects. Test results revealed that the experimental subjects exhibited lower schizophrenia, higher self-esteem, higher well-being, lower perceptual aberration, lower perception of an unfriendly world, lower aggression and no difference from the control group in social potency. These findings are diametrically opposed to Kottmeyer’s theory. He was wrong on every hypothesis. Additional testing revealed no difference between the control and experimental groups in absorption, fantasy proneness and the tendency to engage in imaginings.
Sleep Paralysis & Hypnagogic/Hypnopompic Hallucinations:
More recently, academic psychologists have focused upon explaining why some individuals come to believe they have experienced nocturnal bedroom abductions. Some suspected abductees claim to have awoken paralyzed with shadowy figures standing beside their beds or hovering overhead. They attempt to cry out but cannot vocalize their fright. They are locked inside paralyzed bodies, unable to speak or move, except for their eyes. Their hearts pound and they strain to breathe as if there is a weight upon their chests. They are acutely aware of their surroundings. Shadows transform into frightening gray images and sounds intensify. Sleep paralysis experiencers struggle to break free from their dreadful predicament, and within seconds they are fully awake.
Sleep paralysis is experienced by about 30% of the population at least once. (12) Those who endure it think they are awake but are actually partially in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Sleep paralysis is a normal function of REM sleep because it protects us from acting out our dreams in a physical sense. But occasionally we emerge from sleep while the paralysis continues for a few seconds. Sleep paralysis alone cannot explain the complex imagery described by sleep state abductees. It has to occur in combination with hypnagogic/hypnopompic hallucinations which are more elaborate and can last up to several minutes.
Some academic psychologists hypothesize that extraterrestrial entities are generated in hypnagogic (between waking and sleeping) and hypnopompic (between sleeping and waking) sleep states, a condition that affects about 5% of the population. Hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations occur when factors such as stress, extreme fatigue, medications and mental illness cause the part of the brain that distinguishes between conscious perceptions and internally generated perceptions to misfire. This results in internally generated visions, sounds, feelings, smells or tastes. Experiencers often see colored geometric shapes or parts of objects. Others might observe the colored image of a person, monster or animal. Sensations of floating or flying are common, along with hallucinated buzzing sounds. Hypnagogic hallucinations can be frightening. The hallucinations can last from seconds to minutes and are usually accompanied by a brief period of sleep paralysis. Hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations occur at a high rate of frequency among narcoleptics, who experience extreme fatigue or periods of dozing off during the day. This sleep anomaly persists throughout a lifetime and often occurs within families. Therefore, it might be genetically carried. But most sleep anomaly experiencers report they are able to differentiate between their internally generated hallucinations and reality.
The alien abduction phenomenon, particularly when it occurs during sleep, could quite possibly be generated by hypnagogic and hypnopompic sleep anomalies, particularly among fantasy prone individuals. However, abductees suspected of having veridical experiences due to the presence of physical evidence, witnesses, etc. report subtle but significant differences between their experiences and sleep anomalies. Abductees are often awakened by lights, a rushing sound, and activity in their bedrooms. At the onset of their experience they are not paralyzed, and often cry out, attempt to escape, or even throw objects at the intruders. Small entities, often with glistening eyes, move about their bedrooms. The abductee's partners sometimes attempt to fight back, but is quickly immobilized and returned to his or her bed in what appears to be a deep sleep state. Soon a wave of paralysis overtakes the abductee and they are whooshed from their homes to waiting craft where they are reportedly subjected to involuntary biological/social experiments. Some are returned to their beds, but others end up locked outside of their homes. Some awaken on their roofs, in their vehicles, or even in someone else’s home. Sometimes they find mud and vegetative matter in their beds. Others find they are no longer dressed in their own clothing, but in a stranger’s nightshirt. Sometimes experiencers find landing trace evidence on their property. Most academic psychologists ignore these unique characteristics associated with nocturnal bedroom abductions. Instead they attempt to squeeze this group of experiencers into a sleep disturbance category.
Certainly sleep anomalies are intriguing as a probable explanation for those who exhibit the characteristics associated with hypnagogic and hypnopompic sleep states. However, research in this area is sparse and the neurological processes are not well understood.
False Memory Syndrome:
Debunkers claim that UFO experts have widely disseminated misleading information about alien abduction, whereas sleep paralysis and hypnagogic/hypnopompic hallucinations can explain most nocturnal bedroom abductions. They argue that vulnerable individuals come to suspect they have been abducted after reading books or viewing a movie on the subject. Wanting to recover their repressed memories, they seek out the services of therapists specializing in alien abduction. With the aid of hypnosis, debunkers argue, they “obligingly produce the now-standard account of a full-blown alien abduction”. (13) Once confabulated, the false memory is confirmed as a real event in the experiencer’s mind. Thus, a sleep anomaly transforms into a false belief that becomes an obsession needlessly altering one’s feelings of safety and security, as well as the sense of normality.
In an early study by June Parnell and Leo Sprinkle (U of Wyoming, 1991), 225 individuals (over an eighteen year period), participated in completing the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a screening designed to assess psychopathology, and The Sixteen Personality Factors Test (16PF), an assessment of healthy personality functioning. They ranged from individuals who made no claim of observing a UFO to individuals who reported observing spacecraft or UFO occupants. Some claimed to have been taken aboard a spacecraft, while others claimed to have communicated with UFO occupants. The psychologists were primarily interested in four scales: 1. Scale F on the MMPI measures unusual attitudes, feelings or thoughts. 2. Scale 8 on the MMRI measures divergent thinking, creativity or schizoid tendencies and alienation. 3. Scale 9 on the MMPI measures unstable mood, flight of ideas and psychomotor activity. 4. Factor M on the 16PF scale could indicate tendencies toward fantasy proneness, imaginative thoughts, absent-mindedness or bohemian behavior. Participants who reported UFO and/or occupant sightings scored within the normal range on scale F. However, those who reported communication with ETs had moderately elevated scores. Communicators also received statistically significant scores on scale 8. The psychologists suggested that these elevated scores might be viewed as an endorsement of this more bizarre experience. Both groups scored within the normal range on scale 9. Likewise, Factor M on the 16PF scale revealed that even those who reported occupant sightings and communication with ETs, performed within the normal range on items such as mood stability, psychomotor excitement, bohemian behavior and flight of ideas.
Elizabeth Loftus (U. of Washington) was the first person to introduce the concept of false memory formation in response to a flurry of childhood sexual abuse charges, some of which were caused by suggestion from authority figures, and were not based in reality. False memory syndrome is defined as an experience where people remember events that never happened to them as if they are memories of real events. Because ethics committees prohibit academic psychologists from inducing trauma in test subjects, they are forced to create experiments that attempt to test their hypotheses in a benign environment.
The semantic word association test was developed by James Deese, Henry L. Roediger and Kathleen McDermott (Washington U.) in 1995 to fulfill this need. This test (DRM word memory paradigm) is administered by presenting semantically related word lists (as many as 192 words at a time with 6 critical lures) such as sour, candy, sugar, bitter, good, taste, tooth, nice, honey, soda, chocolate, heart, cake, tart and pie to groups of experimental subjects. The critical lure (sweet) is not presented, but later appears on a word recognition list. The words are generally presented orally, one list at a time, on an audio recording at a rate of one word every three seconds. Participants are then instructed to write down all of the words they recalled hearing on the list. When all six lists have been presented, the participants are distracted with an assignment, such as simple math problems or a short reading assignment followed by questions. Next, they are presented a packet containing the words previously presented and additional words, including the critical lures. They are asked to identify the orally presented words as either “known” to be on the list or “remembered” as having been orally presented. Test subjects who incorrectly recall the critical lures are identified as having developed a false memory for the incorrect word.
Follow-up research in 1997, David A. Gallo, Meredith J. Roberts & John G. Seamon (Wesleyan U.), found that the test could be manipulated to reduce false recall by warning subjects about the presence of false semantically related words. However, it didn’t eliminate false recall altogether. A 1998 study (Seamon, Chun Luo & Gallo) showed that some participants misidentified the critical lure even when presentation speed was manipulated.
Many academic psychologists believe that the process that leads to the misidentification of semantically related words in a laboratory setting might also apply to false memory formation for complex enduring events. False memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus and her colleagues have designed numerous experimental studies in which her participants were induced to recall false memories for an event. For example, in one study they asked test subjects to rate the likelihood that they experienced certain events during their childhood. Two weeks later, they instructed the participants to imagine that they had participated in certain fictitious events using imagination exercises. In one study, twenty-four percent of the participants developed a false memory that the imagined event had occurred. It is interesting to note that 12% of those who did not participate in the imagination exercise also developed a false memory. External suggestions received from others were instrumental in constructing false memories.
In 1996, researchers Saul Kassin and Katherine Kiechel (Williams College), attempted to produce false memories for an enduring event in a compliance experiment with college students. Participants were asked to type the letters they were dictated on a computer, but not to press the ALT key because the computer would crash. A minute after the dictation began, the experimenter caused the computer to crash and feigned distress telling the student that all of the information had been lost. He accused the student of pressing the ALT key. Half of the students were informed by a “witness” that they had been observed pressing the ALT key and the other half were not. Students whose “mistake” was confirmed by a witness were more likely to admit guilt, sign a confession and develop a false memory for the event than students who were not directly observed by the “witness”. Because some students formed a memory for an event that never happened, they were deemed to have developed a false memory for the event, primarily due to social compliance that precipitates false memory formation.
A study at Colgate University by Rinad Beidas, on individual differences in the formation of false memories, found that high suggestibility is not related to the formation of false memories in the Semantic Word Association Test. Students were administered the Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale 2 and the Semantic Word Association Test in order to assess an association between suggestibility and the DRM word memory paradigm. Test results revealed that there was no statistically significant correlation between false recall or false recognition on the Semantic Word Association Test. (14) Beidas also examined whether or not students who produced false memories on an experiment using the Kassin and Kiechel model scored high on the GSS2. A positive correlation was found among participants who confessed to pressing the ALT key, but not for students who denied pressing the ALT key. The Beidas experiment results suggest that both social compliance and suggestibility are factors in the formation of false memories, but that false memories for words and complex events are different entities. (15)
A controversial 2002 false memory study on self reported alien abductees at Harvard University by Susan A. Clancy, Richard J. McNally, Daniel L. Schacter and Mark F. Lenzenweger has been vigorously contested by several researchers from the UFO community. Clancy et al. recruited participants by placing want ads in area newspapers. The experimental group advertisement stated that Harvard University researchers were “seeking people who may have been contacted or abducted by space aliens to participate in a memory study.” The control group advertisement simply stated that Harvard University researchers were “seeking people to participate in a memory study”. (16) None of the participants met the criteria for alien abduction such as conscious recall of a close encounter with a UFO and/or alien beings while outside one’s home, multiple witness testimony, confirmed missing time, forensic evidence, consistent hypnotic recall by more than one witness, passing a polygraph exam, etc. The experimental subjects all met the criteria for sleep paralysis and hypnogogic hallucinations and all had been exposed to popular media pertaining to alien abduction. The test subjects were divided into three groups: 1. recovered memory (11, mean age=47.0) who recovered memories of abduction through therapy, hypnosis or spontaneous recall. 2. repressed memory (9, mean age=40.4) who suspected they had been abducted due to insomnia, a strong interest in science fiction, waking up with body marks, etc., but had no recall of an event. 3. control group (13, mean age=46.1) who denied having been abducted. (17)
Clancy and her team hypothesized that the experimental groups would recall a higher percentage of false targets on the DRM word paradigm (discussed above) than the control group, suggesting that they were prone to false recall and false recognition. This hypothesis fell short of statistical significance on false recall but was significant on false recognition. Variables such as the frequency with which rote memorization is used, fatigue, anxiety, and age are all factors in rote memorization. As noted above, the Beidus study suggests that high scores for false recognition and false recall on the DRM may not be an indication of false memory for complex events, such as UFO abduction.
All three groups completed four subjective experiences scales designed to measure PTSD, depressive symptoms, memory lapses, and hypnotic suggestibility; and four schizopypy and schizophrenia screening measures. These screenings indicated that although the experimental groups experienced a slightly higher degree of depressive symptoms and anxiety than the control group, they were for the most part normal, although many exhibited higher levels of creativity, vivid memory formation, open-mindedness toward psi experiences, and the ability to become absorbed in music, a movie or nature, which Clancy et al. interpreted as fantasy proneness.
The researchers hypothesized that the two experimental groups would score higher on the schizotypy screening measures than the control group. Schizotypal behaviors include odd or eccentric behavior, a lack of close friends outside of the family, magical thinking, excessive social anxiety associated with paranoid fears, and odd thinking and speech. (18) Schizotypal behavior disorder is a mild variant of schizophrenia. Multiple family studies indicate that persons with SBD and schizophrenia have a similar genetic predisposition. Schizotypy falls on the lower end of the continuum and indicates a tendency to exhibit some of the characteristics of the disorder. Both disorders can only be diagnosed by a psychologist or psychiatrist.
The experimental groups scored significantly higher on the Magical Ideation Scale and the Perceptual Aberration Scale than the control group, but not on the Referential Thinking Scale. In order to gain a full understanding of the significance of each group’s performance on these measures, it seems worthwhile to become somewhat familiar with the questions asked.
The Magical Ideation Scale is a thirty question true/false self-reported inventory. It was originally introduced as an indicator of schizotypy but has been found to be indicative of thinking styles found in the normal population. Individuals with high scores on this measure scored significantly higher than control groups on tests for creativity. (19) It lists statements such as:
· Horoscopes are right too often for it to be a coincidence.
· If reincarnation were true, it would explain some unusual experiences I have had.
· I sometimes have a feeling of gaining or losing energy when people look at me or touch me.
· Some people can make me aware of them just by thinking about me.(20)
Those who score in the 0-3 range are considered linear. 4-12 is normal for males and 4-15 is normal for females. All three groups were represented by one more male than female member. Scores above 16 are schizotypal. The Recovered memory group (6 men, 5 women) scored 10.7 (SD: 5.0)—clearly within the normal range. The Repressed Memory Group (5 men, 4 women) scored 11.1 (SD: 5.5)—this indicates that perhaps one subject scored within the schizotypal range, but all others were within the normal range. The control group (7 men, 6 women) did not fall within the normal mean range for men or women. They scored 3.8 (SD 3.5) indicating that some were in the linear group, although others fell within the low normal range. The researchers interpreted this information as a confirmation of their hypothesis. Although the experimenters’ hypothesis was confirmed, the mean score for the two experimental groups fell within the normal range and the mean score for the control group fell below the normal range close to the linear thinking range.
The Perceptual Aberration Scale measures psychotic-like experiences such as body discontinuities and unusual scenery experiences, (e.g. I felt that something outside of my body was part of my body.) (21) On this thirty five question self reporting inventory, the Recovered Memory Group’s mean score was 8.0 (SD: 7.9), The Repressed Memory Group averaged 6.6 (SD: 5.3), and the Control Group averaged 3.1 (SD 2.3). The mean score for this measure varies by racial groups (whites score lower than other racial groups), and gender. White women average 6.7 (SD: 5.86) and white men average 6.64 (SD: 6.23). (22) These findings indicate that although the recovered memory group scored higher than the repressed memory or control groups, they all fell within the average range. The scores confirmed the researchers’ schizotypy hypothesis but did not support the contention that the experimental subjects deviated from the norm.
The Referential Thinking Scale is a thirty four question true/false inventory that measures ideas of reference, e.g., the idea that strangers are talking about you or that songs were written about you. (23) The test results failed to support the research team’s hypothesis that the experimental groups would score measurably higher on this scale.
A critical analysis of the test subjects’ scores reveals that the control group performed below the norm on various measures including the Perceptual Aberration and Magical Ideation Scales. They seemed to be a group of particularly linear thinkers. If this observation is correct, as a group they would be expected to perform better on an orally presented memory test than would non-linear thinkers. We know that these left-brained linear types are auditory thinkers who process information in a sequential, analytical order. They are good rote memorizers, whereas right brained intuitives tend to see the whole picture and are not facile at rote memorization. It appears that the test subjects were two opposite learning style types and this would obviously skew the test results. Therefore, one has to question the validity of Clancy’s conclusions.
Susan Clancy participated in an additional memory distortion research project in 2004 (see “Memory Distortion in People Reporting Abduction by Aliens”, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol. 1, No. 3, 455-461). In 2005, her book Abducted: How people come to believe they were kidnapped by aliens created uproar in the UFO community. In Abducted, Clancy conjectured that those who believe they were abducted by aliens are scientifically naïve and gullible. She states that they create vivid fantasies from a toxic mix of nightmares, culturally available images and media saturation, which are reinforced by unscrupulous hypnotists. She further asserts that they are eccentric, prone to magical thinking, and have a belief in the paranormal.
I will not take the time here to discuss all of the bias, misinformation and misrepresentation in her book, but either she is naive and misinformed regarding alien abduction phenomena or she is biased against the evidence. (See referenced critiques by Friedman, Hopkins, Jacobs & Marden)
An unpublished but highly significant study (2007) by Tamara Lagrandeur, Ph.D.(McGill, Don C, Donderi, Ph.D.(McGill), Stuart Appelle, Ph.D.(SUNY Brockport) and abduction researcher Budd Hopkins (Intruders Foundation), examined whether or not sets of symbols observed inside the alien craft, by some self-reported abductees, exhibit consistent characteristics. Results were presented at the Association for Psychological Science in Chicago, IL, on May 13, 2008. Twelve self-reported abductees who stated that they had observed symbols aboard an alien craft were interviewed by Budd Hopkins. Each observer drew one or more of the observed symbols, and Hopkins submitted them to the academic psychologists. All symbol information was confidential in order to avoid information contamination. In turn, Stuart Appelle hypnotized a group of twenty-four graduate students and instructed them to imagine and illustrate symbols inside an imaginary alien spacecraft. He then asked the graduate student group to draw the confabulated symbols. The thirty-six symbol sets, representing both groups, were scanned and then photocopied into a common format to ensure that an evaluator could not differentiate between sources. The resulting sheets were assigned a random code number for identification purposes.
Subsequently, Tamara Lagrandeur appointed nineteen McGill University undergraduates to evaluate the symbols for multidimensional similarity. The mean scores for the “confabulation” group and “abductee” group were significantly different on all three dimensions. The abductee group produced remarkably similar symbols which were distinctly different from the symbols produced by the confabulation group.
The research scientists concluded that the consistency of symbols seen by the “abductee” group inside alien craft could possibly mean that the reports are true. (24) This important study warrants publication in a prestigious scientific journal, but did not appear as a published article in my research queries. (In a follow-up study, Dr. Donderi evaluated symbols drawn by Betty Hill in August 2000. He stated that Betty’s symbols were remarkably similar to the ones that had been collected by Budd Hopkins since the mid-1970s.)
The only conclusion we can draw from all of the social research findings is that fantasy prone persons with thin boundaries; individuals who experience dissociative states high on the multiple personality disorder scale; and those who experience certain sleep anomalies (narcolepsy); might believe they have been abducted by aliens, when they have not. If they are hypnotized by authority figures with a personal bias in favor of UFO abduction theory and asked leading questions, or if they firmly believe they have been abducted and have exposure to abduction information, they might confabulate an abduction experience. Once confabulated in hypnosis, they might have a propensity to believe that a psychological experience is a real UFO abduction. However, the following point is critically important. Responsible abduction researchers and therapists refuse to hypnotize individuals who fall into this category. The primary requirement for hypnosis should be substantial evidence that the experience was not merely a hallucination or fantasy.
1. The entire text of Robert Low’s memo can be found in Appendix A of UFOs? Yes! Where the Condon Committee went Wrong by David R. Saunders and R. Roger Harkins.
2. Edward Condon, The Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, Section 2. “Summary of the Study”.
3. Science, Vol. 170, No. 3958 (Nov. 6, 1970) p. 600.
4. Conversation between Stanton T. Friedman and Ron Westrum 3/8/2010.
5. Troy Zimmer, “Belief in UFOs as Alternative Reality, Cultural Rejection or Disturbed Psyche” Deviant Behavior. pp. 412-413.
6. Ibid. pp. 413 & 417.
7. G. Ganaway, “”Historical Truth Versus Narrative Truth. Clarifying the role of exogenous trauma in the etiology of multiple personality disorder and its variants”. p. 210.
8. K. Ring and C. Rosing, “The Omega Project: A psychological survey of persons reporting abductions and other UFO encounters”. Journal of UFO Studies. pp. 70-71.
9. LeLieuvre, Robert, et al. “Omega 3: Revelation or Revolution: A Comparative Study of Abductees Experiences and Community Comparison Control Participants”, April 2010.
10. Bartholomew, RE, et al. “UFO Abductees and Contactees: Psychopathology or Fantasy proneness?
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12. Estimates range from 25% to 40%.
13. Katherine Holden and Christopher French, “Alien Abduction Experiences: Some clues from neuropsychology and neuropsychiatry. p. 170.
14. Rinad Beidas, “Individual Differences in the Formation of False Memories: Is suggestibility a predictive factor?, Colgate University Journal of Sciences. p. 83.
15. Ibid. pp. 84-85.
16. Susan A Clancy et al. “Memory Distortion in People Reporting Abduction by Aliens”, American Psychological Society, 2004. p. 456.
17. Ibid. pp. 457-458.
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