Date: Sat Apr 30 1994 09:26:00 Subj: Baker Comment - Spanos Study, 1/3 ABDUCT - Thanks to

Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

Date: Sat Apr 30 1994 09:26:00 From: John Powell Subj: Baker Comment - Spanos Study, 1/3 ABDUCT ------------------------------- Thanks to John Stepkowski for this article. ------------------------------------------- >Magazine: Skeptical Inquirer >Issue: Spring 1994 (Vol. 18 No. 3) >Title: Studying the Psychology of the UFO Experience >Author: Robert A. Baker Empirical studies of people alleged to have had UFO experiences are hard to come by because of the relative rarity of such claimants, the shortage of interested and scientifically trained investigators, and the esoteric nature of the subject matter. A new study by Nicholas P. Spanos and colleagues in the Carleton University Department of Psychology in Ottawa, Canada, is noteworthy in that it has managed to overcome these obstacles ("Close Encounters: An Examination of UFO Experiences," by Nicholas P. Spanos, Patricia A. Cross, Kirby Dickson, and Susan C. Dubereuil, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 102 (4): 624-632, 1993). This study is significant, in my opinion, because it shows that the earlier explanatory accounts accounts of this phenomenon are somewhat flawed and it also points to the most probable or "true" explanation for these curious reports. Recognizing at the outset that claims of alien encounters and alien abductions are a social- psychological rather than a material or physical problem, Spanos et al. sought to test two general hypotheses. The first is that people making such claims are psychologically of psychosocially disturbed, i.e., pathological. The second argues that these people have strong imaginative powers and are "fantasy prone," i.e., people who are easily hypnotized and who weave elaborate fantasies around internal sensations and external suggestions and then are convinced that the fantasies are "real." Using 176 adults, one group of 49 UFO reporters recruited through newspaper ads and two comparison groups -- one of 53 community volunteers and another of 74 university students -- the psychologists gave the three groups a series of psychological tests and questionnaires. Subjects in the UFO group also received an hour-long semistructred interview and were asked about their UFO experiences and their beliefs. The interviews were scored by independent judges and were rated for the emotional intensity and subjective reality of the UFO encounter. The psychological measures used are all standard, valid, and reliable. Well-accepted measurements were used to determine psychopathology, intelligence, social and emotional adjustment, cognitive ability, and fantasy proneness. In analyzing the results, the UFO reporters were divided into two groups: those who simply saw lights in the sky and scored very low on the belief intensity dimension and those who scored much higher on the emotional and reality scales. All four groups were then compared: 31 UFO-intense subjects; 18 UFO-nonintense subjects; 18 UFO-nonintense subjects; 53 community adults; and 74 students. Differences between the groups on each of the test battery variables were analyzed with a series of one-way analyses of variance. Both UFO groups held significantly more exotic beliefs than subjects in comparison groups, and they also attained higher scores on five of the psychological health variables. In short, the findings provide no support whatsoever for the hypothesis that UFO reporters are psychologically pathological. Regarding the "fantasy" hypothesis, no group differences were found on the temporal lobe lability scale, on the three imaginal propensity measures, and on three indexes of hypnotizablilty--all recognized measures of fantasy proneness. There were, however, major differences between the intense and nonintense UFO groups with regard to whether or not their experiences were sleep related. UFO-intense subjects reported that their experiences were sleep related significantly more often than did the nonintense subjects. Only one subject in the nonintense group said his experience was related to falling asleep, dreaming, or waking up; 58 percent of the intense subjects described their experiences as sleep related. In their discussion, the authors interpret their findings as failing to confirm either the psychopatholgy or fantasy-prone hypothesis about UFO close-encounter experiences. Not only were the UFO groups as mentally healthy as the controls but the UFO groups were no different from the controls on any of the imaginal propensity measures. The finding that did most clearly differentiate the UFO and comparison groups was belief in UFOs (as alien spacecraft) and in the reality of alien life-forms. The authors also suggest that many of the UFO subjects believed in alien existence long before having any UFO experiences. In their own words: (p. 631): Our findings suggest that intense UFO experiences are more likely to occur in individuals who are disposed to esoteric beliefs in general and alien beliefs in particular and who interpret unusual sensory and imaginal experiences in terms of the alien hypothesis. Among UFO believers, those with stronger propensities toward fantasy production were particularly likely to be generated and interpreted as real events rather than imaginings when they were associated with restricted sensory environments that contributed to confusion between internally produced images and sensations and external events (e.g., experiences that occurred at night and in association with sleep). The authors also caution that to understand the elaborate and often bizarre reports of those in the intense group it is important to note that most of these reports (60 percent) were sleep related. Although some were merely dreams of UFOs and aliens, the sleep-related UFO experiences involving paralysis were also usually accompanied by visual or auditory hallucinations, or both, and sometimes by the sense of a presence that was somehow felt but not seen. Baker (1992), in an unpublished but widely distributed paper, "Alien Abductions or Human Productions: Some Not So Unusual Personal Experiences," has also called attention to the striking similarity between reports of alien abductions (as chronicled by clients of Hopkins [1987], Jacobs [1992], and Mack [1992], as well as Whitley Strieber, regarding his own abduction claim in Communion) and the medical reports from people having sleep paralysis with hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations (Rehm 1991: Segal 1992). For all practical purposes, the two sets of reports are identical. A comparison of UFO-abduction reports and the medical reports of sleep paralysis with accompanying hypnagogic and hypnopomic hallucinations show the two to differ only in the hallucinatory content. Ghosts and demons dominate the medical, historical, and folklore narrations; UFOs and aliens appear in modern reports. Explorations for other psychological manifestations alleged to accompany the abduction scenario are also provided in the Baker report. While the Spanos et al. study adds significantly to our understanding of the personality characteristics of those individuals reporting UFO encounters and who believe in the extraterrestrial hypothesis (which is, after all, the crux of the matter), it should not be forgotten that people claiming abductions by aliens are relatively few in number. This is certainly the case in the Spanos study. Most importantly, the Spanos study outcome must not under any circumstances be construed as providing aid and comfort to these believers in either the extraterrestrial hypothesis or the credibility of alien abductions. This has, unfortunately, already happened in several instances where the media have left the impression that if those who believe in UFOs and alien abduction are neither "crazy" nor "fantasy prone" then their beliefs in extraterrestrial visitations have been validated. The major importance of this study is that it shifts attention from the false leads of pathology and neurological aberrations to the true path of false beliefs that are engendered by a common but little recognized type of sleep disorder. The fact that UFO contacts and abductees are not pathological is, however, not surprising to experienced anomalistic psychologists, who have long been aware that delusions, i.e., false beliefs, are common coin and in no way are indicative of pathology. Unless our delusions interfere with our social and personal adjustment or are so pervasive as to endanger our lives and the lives of others, they are usually ignored. Often these false beliefs may serve to help us keep our mental balance and even cope with life's stresses and strains, as in the case of our religions. Many noted and distinguished psychiatrists also hold to what most scientifically trained people would consider to be false beliefs. Raymond Moody, in his latest book, Reunion (1993), says he converses frequently with visions of his dead relatives. M. Scott Peck believes in demon possession as the true explanation for many multiple personality disorders (1983, 1984) and Colin Ross believes that most skilled athletes have and use psychokinetic powers (1989). According to the December 27, 1993, _Time_ magazine, 69 percent of the American public believe in the existence of angels and 46 percent believe they have their own guardian angel. One person's conviction and reality are another person's fantasy and delusion. Some people believe they have been abducted by aliens. Most of do not. It is also important for the public to realize that people who are pathological or "crazy" are not "crazy" all over or "crazy" all the time. We are only "crazy" in spots and only on occasion, not continuously. Psychiatric diagnosis is not an easy task, as the _Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders_, the famous Rosenhan study (1973), and the difficulties of dealing with factitious disorders (Feldman and Ford 1994) attest. In this regard the Spanos et al. conclusion, that "among UFO believers, those with strong propensities toward fantasy production were particularly likely to generate such experiences" (p. 631), again calls attention to the important role that imagination and fantasy play in the production of alien-contact and alien-abduction reports. A similar conclusion was also reached by Ring and Rosing (1990) in their survey of people reporting UFO encounters and abductions. Although the two studies are somewhat familiar in intent and design, the Spanos et al. study is by far the superior one and sticks to the mundane three-dimensional world of cold, hard reality rather than soaring off into alternate realities and universes to account for a very worldly human experience based upon beliefs in alien visitation. These beliefs, say the authors, "serve as templates against which people shape ambiguous external information, diffuse physical sensations, _and vivid imaginations_ [emphasis added [by Baker]] into alien encounters that are experienced as real events" (p. 631). Of the experimental and empirical studies we have of this particular problem, the Spano et al. study is the best thus far.


E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank