Understanding UFOs Through Social and Psychological Processes

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UFOs, or unidentified flying objects, have seen a popular resurgence in the last 75 years, fueled by mysterious images and videos, popular culture, and an inherent desire to know more about the universe. Despite multiple investigations, there is no evidence that UFOs are of extraterrestrial origin. However, psychological and social factors contribute to the ongoing UFO craze, as people are eager to find answers to their ambiguity and often accept weak evidence in order to support preexisting beliefs.

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Most of us still call them UFOs – unidentified flying objects. NASA recently adopted the term "unidentified anomalous phenomena," or UAP. Either way, every few years popular claims resurface that these things are not of our world, or that the U.S. government has some stored away.

I’m a sociologist who focuses on the interplay between individuals and groups, especially concerning shared beliefs and misconceptions. As for why UFOs and their alleged occupants enthrall the public, I’ve found that normal human perceptual and social processes explain UFO buzz as much as anything up in the sky.

UFO sightings began to increase dramatically during the 1950s when flying saucers became a popular culture narrative, leading to what some see as a 'UFO craze'.

Historical context .

Like political scandals and high-waisted jeans, UFOs trend in and out of collective awareness but never fully disappear. Thirty years of polling find that 25%-50% of surveyed Americans believe at least some UFOs are alien spacecraft. Today in the U.S., over 100 million adults think our galactic neighbors pay us visits.

It wasn’t always so. Linking objects in the sky with visiting extraterrestrials has risen in popularity only in the past 75 years. Some of this is probably market-driven. Early UFO stories boosted newspaper and magazine sales, and today they are reliable clickbait online.

The term UFO was introduced in 1953 by the US Airforce to replace the term 'flying saucers'.

In 1980, a popular book called "The Roswell Incident" by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore described an alleged flying saucer crash and government cover-up 33 years prior near Roswell, New Mexico. The only evidence ever to emerge from this story was a small string of downed weather balloons. Nevertheless, the book coincided with a resurgence of interest in UFOs. From there, a steady stream of UFO-themed TV shows, films, and pseudo-documentaries has fueled public interest. Perhaps inevitably, conspiracy theories about government cover-ups have risen in parallel.

Attempts to explain UFO sightings are known as 'ufology' and it has been believed by some to be an extraterrestrial phenomenon or a paranormal activity.

Some UFO cases inevitably remain unresolved. But despite the growing interest, multiple investigations have found no evidence that UFOs are of extraterrestrial origin – other than the occasional meteor or misidentification of Venus.

But the U.S. Navy’s 2017 Gimbal video continues to appear in the media. It shows strange objects filmed by fighter jets, often interpreted as evidence of alien spacecraft. And in June 2023, an otherwise credible Air Force veteran and former intelligence officer made the stunning claim that the U.S. government is storing numerous downed alien spacecraft and their dead occupants.

The National UFO Reporting Center registered over 10,000 UFO sightings in 2020, a record high.

Human factors contributing to UFO beliefs .

Only a small percentage of UFO believers are eyewitnesses. The rest base their opinions on eerie images and videos strewn across both social media and traditional mass media. There are astronomical and biological reasons to be skeptical of UFO claims. But less often discussed are the psychological and social factors that bring them to the popular forefront.

The most infamous case of a UFO sighting is the Roswell Incident, which allegedly occurred in 1947 in New Mexico and brought reports of alien spacecraft crash.

Many people would love to know whether or not we’re alone in the universe. But so far, the evidence on UFO origins is ambiguous at best. Being averse to ambiguity, people want answers. However, being highly motivated to find those answers can bias judgments. People are more likely to accept weak evidence or fall prey to optical illusions if they support preexisting beliefs.

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