The History and Psychology of UFOs

A landscape of a wintry mountain range against a starry night sky with a bright full moon. Amid the mountains is a glowing light, conceptualizing the mysticism of UFOs and abnormal phenomena.

What characteristics do ufologists tend to have? Who is likely to report sightings of UFOs? How long has humanity been interested in unidentified flying objects, anyway?

To answer these questions, The Science of Personality cohosts Ryne Sherman, PhD, and Blake Loepp spoke with Greg Eghigian, PhD, professor of history and bioethics at Penn State University. Greg, who studies the history of supernatural and paranormal phenomena, is the author of After the Flying Saucers Came: A Global History of the UFO Phenomenon and has appeared on television as a subject-matter expert.

“The boundaries, historically speaking, between the abnormal and the paranormal are porous,” Greg observed. “When societies assess supernatural claims, decisions and judgments are being made as to what is a socially acceptable experience and what is not.”

In this episode, Greg covers the psychology of ufologists (and deniers), the history of ufology, what makes a claim legitimate and credible, and the type of UFO eyewitness he finds most persuasive.

The Personalities of Ufologists

In researching the history of UFOs, Greg has seen that people who tend to become amateur experts in UFOs are excellent investigators of the unexplained. Both groups, for and against, have similar social backgrounds and certain common values. Ufologists tend to be middle-class white males who are highly educated and interested in science and engineering. They also tend to be voracious readers and belong to certain geographical areas, such as the Pacific coast of the US.

Regarding values, the crusading ufologist and classic debunker share a moral imperative to educate people about reality. “Both see themselves as these protectors of the common good of public welfare by exposing truth and exposing deceit,” Greg said. They differ as to their motives: providing evidence of alien existence, identifying UFOs as natural phenomena or human hoaxes, supporting a religious belief system, or otherwise.

Confirmation bias, the tendency to look for information that supports our existing beliefs and values, affects the psychology of ufologists, whether academic, amateur, or bystander. For instance, UFO sightings tend to occur in waves, or intense periods with a dramatically higher number of sightings in a particular place. One explanation for UFO waves might be confirmation bias, Greg said. People who hope to witness unidentified flying objects might well do so.

The History of UFO Sightings

“People across the world have been seeing strange things in the sky since recorded history,” Greg said. Some of the sightings may have been comets, meteor showers, or atmospheric phenomena that were unknown at the time. Many were interpreted as divine communications or omens.

Greg explained that the modern concept of the alien flying saucer originated in the summer of 1947. An American private pilot flying over Washington State saw several objects moving quickly through the air in formation. When questioned by journalists, he described the objects’ movement as being similar to a saucer skipping over some water. Thus, the term “flying saucer” originated through media coverage.

Since the 1940s, UFOs have taken a range of shapes, including triangles, globes, pinwheels, and cigars. The most common type of UFO is light in the sky that lasts just a couple of seconds. People are likely attracted to the UFO phenomenon because of the vague, fleeting, and mysterious appearance—and disappearance—of the objects. In the 1950s, many people responded to news of flying saucer sightings by claiming the dawn of an age of harmony and peace with aliens from space. This interpretation is comparable to that of ancient people seeking otherworldly messages in the sky.

UFO Witness Credibility

Among reports of UFO sightings, legitimacy and credibility are not the same. “Witness descriptions can be largely accurate, but they can be incomplete when it comes to being true,” Greg said. The atmospheric phenomenon called a sun dog, which causes two bright spots to appear on either side of the sun, sometimes accompanied by a halo, has been often misidentified as a UFO. Historical witnesses of sun dogs described them accurately but erroneously attributed them to alien presence.

“Outsiders make judgments not about the sighting, but about the reliability and even the character of the person reporting the sighting,” he said. “Witness sightings often devolve into personality assessments and personal attacks.”

Since the 1940s and ‘50s, flying saucers have been associated with extraterrestrial life. A negative stereotype holds that witnesses of UFOs must also believe in aliens. This connection between UFOs and aliens has likely deterred reporting of UFOs by people who didn’t want to be stigmatized.

Statistical data about UFO sightings are only reports of sightings. It is highly likely that most sightings go officially unreported. The data we do have are biased by the fact that people must be willing to report and know where to report. The authorities who take the reports factor in the accuracy of the data too. Without a dedicated office or agency to collect the data, people tend to report UFO sightings to local police, who might not take the information seriously enough to pass on to another body. Unofficial reporting to local UFO groups can be inconsistent or inaccurate. “We don’t have a lot of good information on sightings because of this process,” Greg said.

UFOs: More Questions Than Answers

People who report encounters with either UFOs or aliens are often puzzled and troubled about their experience. Instead of always attributing the anomalous occurrence to aliens, they will sometimes say they are not convinced about what they saw or felt. They might refer to divine entities or altered states of consciousness.

Ufologists can be affected by the same social stigma as UFO witnesses. It’s as if anyone who asks questions about UFOs is seen as attention-seeking, dramatic, and irrational. Yet despite this stereotype, sincere UFO witnesses, ufologists, and debunkers want to find answers to their questions about UFOs.

Regarding the recent congressional hearings about UFOs, Greg said, “Discussions about UFOs are often not about UFOs.” He mentioned classification of information and funding exploitation as topics that overshadow the issue of UFO identification. He also thinks it unlikely that world governments would be able to conceal the presence of UFOs successfully because of the vigilance and skill of civilian scientific organizations.

Interest in the unknown, unexplained, and unidentified should be encouraged. “The way people have understood them [paranormal phenomena] has changed over time—and that’s fun to see,” Greg said.

Listen to this conversation in full on episode 86 of The Science of Personality. Never miss an episode by following us anywhere you get podcasts. Cheers, everybody!