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Science and the UFO phenomenon:

Sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, historians, ... have things to say about the UFO phenomenon. Guess what? It is quite interesting.

Sociopsychology and the UFO phenomenon, Dr. Robert L. Hall:

This statement was submitted by Dr. Robert L. Hall, sociologist and psychologist, to the House Committee on Science and Astronautics at July 29, 1968, Symposium on Unidentified Flying Objects, Rayburn Bldg., Washington, D.C.

The biography of Dr. Hall is as follows:


Born February 25, 1924, at Atlanta, Georgia. Married; 3 children.


Yale University, 1941-42. B.A. 1947.

University of Stockholm, Sweden, 1947-48.

University of Minnesota, 1949-52. M.A., 1950. Ph.D., 1953.


1. Instructor, Extension Division, University of Stockholm, Sweden, 1948.

2. Research Assistant, University of Minnesota, 1950-52.

3. Social Psychologist in the Air Force Personnel & Training Research Center, 1952-1957. Engaged in research on performance of bomber crews, the role of the aircraft commander, and processes of evaluation of small teams.

4. Assistant Professor (1957-1960) and Associate Professor (1960-62) of Sociology. Teaching social psychology, especially the processes of mass communication and opinion change. Conducting research on social psychological aspects of higher education and effects of social interaction on the learning process.

5. Program Director for Sociology and Social Psychology, National Science Foundation, 1962-1965. Administered a program of research grants and related activities to strengthen Sociology and Social Psychology in universities in the United States and to bolster understanding in these fields through basic research.

6. Associate Professor of Sociology and Psychology (1965-66) and Professor of Sociology and Head of the Department of Sociology (since 1966), University of Illinois at Chicago Circle.


A number of articles in Sociological and Psychological journals and chapters in professional books. A few selected publications are listed below:

Social influence on the Aircraft Commander's role, "American Sociological Review" 1955,20,292-299.

Military Sociology, 1945-1955. "Chapter in Sociology in the United States of America," ed. by Hans Zetterberg, Paris: UNESCO, 1966.

Group performance under feedback that confounds responses of group members. "Sociometry," 1957,20,297-305.

The informal control of everyday behavior. Chapter in "Controlling Human Behavior," ed. by Roy Francis, Social Science Research Center, University of Minnesota; 1959.

Two alternative learning in interdependent dyads. Chapter 12 in "Mathematical Methods in Small Group Processes," ed. by Joan Criswell, H. Solomon, and P. Suppes, Stanford Univ. Press: 1962.

The educational influence of dormitory roommates. "Sociometry," 1963,26,294-318 (with Ben Willerman).

The effects of different social feedback conditions upon performance in dyadic teams. Chapter in "Communication and Culture," ed. by A. G. Smith, 1966, 353-364.


Mr. Roush. The committee will be in order. This afternoon we are going to hear first from Dr. Robert L. Hall. Dr. Hall is professor and head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois, and has been since 1965.

He too has a distinguished career. Dr. Hall, we are glad to welcome you as a participant in this symposium, and you may proceed.


Dr. Hall. Thank you, Mr. Roush

First I should like to state a few of the rather well-established facts as they would be seen by a social psychologist. I find that when I do so, there is a great deal of redundancy. You have heard most of these facts before, so I will make my presentation brief.

Fundamentally what we know that everyone can agree upon is that a great many people all over the world keep reporting some quite puzzling flying objects. In these reports there are certain recurring features, and the people so reporting often have all the characteristics of reliable witnesses.

Second, the next main thing we know is that there are several strongly, often bitterly competing systems of belief about how to explain these observations, and some rational men seem to fall into line supporting each of these positions.

This in itself is of course of great interest to a social psychologist. Inevitably he is interested in how systems of belief grow and are maintained.

The third major factual thing that can be quite well agreed upon is that to a very large extent these alternative explanations, these systems of belief, have become rooted in organizations of people who have become committed to defending their respective positions. This greatly complicates the problem of arriving at a generally accepted explanation. In that sense, in addition to any other problems that have been defined here, clearly we have a social psychological problem also.

These are very briefly the main outlines of the facts as I see them. Now, how are these explained?

There are certain things that everyone seems to agree upon, or nearly everyone, I believe. First that a great many of these observations can be quite clearly identified as mistakes on the part of the observer, misidentifications of familiar objects, hoaxes, and a miscellaneous collection of similar things.

Beyond that point, there comes to be a good deal of divergence in explanations, to say the least. Perhaps the major views now can be classified simply as follows: First, that these are technological devices or vehicles of some sort entering our atmosphere from the outside.

Second, that this is some new, as yet ill-understood natural phenomena, something like a form of plasma, that we do not understand, and so on.

The third major hypothesis to explain the hard-core cases that are not otherwise agreed upon, is that they too are simply a result of mass hysteria, and its resulting misidentifications.

This hypothesis I will address myself to particularly very soon, because obviously a social psychologist has a special interest in this possibility.

The three major topics that I believe I should address myself to are, first, what has brought about this complicated situation of strongly opposed beliefs that seem to resist the factual evidence, and are not responsive to each other?

Second, what are the probable consequences from the point of view of a sociologist or social psychologist of each of the major explanations?

And third, I would like to comment quite explicitly on the hypothesis that mass hysteria and hysterical contagion is common in many of the cases.

I believe I should start with the mass hysteria hypothesis. To begin with, I think there is very strong evidence that some of the cases do result from hysterical contagion in the sense that this has often been used by social psychologists. Once people are sensitized to the existence of some kind of a phenomenon (whether indeed it really exists or not), when there is an ambiguous situation requiring explanation, when there is emotion or anxiety associated with this, resulting from the uncertainty, there are precisely the conditions that have been observed repeatedly as resulting in what I shall call "improvised news." Lacking well-verified facts and explanations, people always seem to generate the news and the explanations that will reduce the ambiguity, thereby reduce the anxiety they have about uncertain situations.

There are many well-documented cases of this kind of mass hysteria and hysterical contagion. I believe it will be out of place for me to go into lengthy discussions of these episodes, but I shall comment on a few ways in which we can examine the observations of unidentified flying objects to assess whether this is a reasonable hypothesis for the hard-core cases.

One of the first of these is one thoroughly familiar to attorneys, social psychologists having no monopoly on an interest in the credibility of testimony, but this is one of the principal means obviously of establishing whether we should reasonably believe certain explanations.

The criteria, as most of you know, involve such things as the established reputation of the witnesses, the quality and details of the report, whether there are apparent motives for distortion or prevarication, whether there was preexisting knowledge of the thing being reported, whether there were multiple witnesses and whether there was contact among these multiple witnesses, whether observation was through more than one medium (for example, direct visual observation confirmed by radar) whether there were verifiable effects that could be observed after the reporting by witnesses, recently of the events being reported, the duration of the period in which the witness was able to observe the phenomenon; how the witnesses reacted, whether they had intense anxiety and emotion themselves, which might interfere with their observation, and so forth.

These are some of the major factors, and a closely related factor in assessing the credibility of the testimony is of course an assessment of the care in gathering the testimony by interviewers themselves.

How does the testimony on hard-core UFO cases look with reference to these criteria? I should say that there is a substantial subset of cases which look very good on these criteria, which make it very difficult to say that the witnesses involved were victims of hysterical contagion, grossly misinterpreting familiar things.

For example, there is the Red Bluff, Calif., case in 1960, where two policemen observed for 2 hours and 15 minutes constantly, apparently without tremendous anxiety or concern, an object hovering, moving about, going through gyrations. Twice it approached their police car. When they tried to approach it, it would retreat.

They radioed in and requested that this object be confirmed on radar, and it was confirmed by local radar stations at approximately the same location.

Ultimately, after a couple of hours of observation, they watched this object move away, join a second similar object, and then disappear. They then went to the sheriff's office, where two deputies were present who had also seen this phenomenon, and gave similar descriptions.

Now applying the criteria to a case such as this, in most respects it is very convincing. These are police officers of good reputation. Their report was prompt, thorough, careful, and in writing -- and I have read the report in full. There is much detail in it of a sort that could be cross-checked with the other witnesses from the sheriff's office. There are no apparent motives for prevarication or distortion. It was a long period of observation.

I cannot establish very clearly what prior interest or information these witnesses had, but I find no indication that they had any. There was confirmation of the observation from more than one medium of observation -- both visual and radar.

This is the kind of case that leads me to regard the hypothesis of hysterical contagion as being quite inadequate to account for these observations. It is not a lone case; there are many others.

There were trained ground observers near White Plains, N.Y., in 1954, who observed an object which they described as having the apparent size of the moon, while simultaneously they saw the moon, which was not full that night. They watched this for 20 or 30 minutes, then it moved away to the southeast.

Two radar stations established fixes confirming the visually reported location. Jets were scrambled from two bases to intercept. The ground observers were able to see the jet trails approaching. Both the pilots of the jets and the ground observers report that as the jets approached, this object changed color and moved up very rapidly and disappeared, and at that point radar contact was also lost.

Once again this is the kind of report that seems to me to fit the customary criteria of credibility to a very considerable degree. It is very difficult to claim that these multiple observers, trained for the type of observation they were making, confirmed independently through more than one channel, were victims of hysterical contagion.

Dr. McDonald, I believe, referred briefly to the Levelland, Tex. cases in 1958, of interference with automobile ignition, in which there were 10 separate sightings in that one evening, apparently with no opportunity for the citizens involved either to read the news, hear the news of this, nor to talk with one another. They uniformly reported the same general shape. They uniformly reported -- a great many of them reported also interference with automobiles ignition and headlights. This was an effect which at that time had not been observed and publicized a great deal. It subsequently has become publicized.

Now, how do these cases differ from the well-known, documented cases of mass hysteria and hysterical contagion? In general those episodes have not persisted as long as the active interest in unidentified flying objects, it lasted a week or a few weeks, and it had not been too difficult to find reasonably acceptable explanations.

In the second place, they have not generally involved a prolonged observation of a phenomenon by people who were calm, not emotionally upset. A characteristic example of hysterical contagion would be the recent study by Back and Kerckhoff, supported by the National Science Foundation. The book reporting on this study is called "The June Bug." It was a case of hysterical contagion among the employees of a factory in North Carolina.

It is one of the most thoroughly reported and studied incidents of this sort. It resembles the kind of thing we are talking about in almost no respect. I find it very difficult to find elements in common, other than the fact that some people believed something that was difficult to verify.

The employees were convinced that they were being bitten by poisonous insects, resulting in fainting and other symptoms such as rashes. All medical officers, all careful research on this, was unable to turn up any hard evidence that such an insect was present, or that there was any standard medical accounting for these symptoms. But these were people in close constant contact, sharing a particular set of problems and frustrations that raised their level of anxiety.

The epidemic can be interpreted as a convenient way of escaping the problem of coping with very difficult circumstances. I have said that I think in isolated cases you can find a similar thing in observations of unidentified flying objects, but if we look at the hard-core, well-documented cases, I see practically no resemblance.

Another important thing to note about the witnesses in the best sightings of UFO's is that very commonly -- as has been mentioned, I believe, by Dr. McDonald -- they first try to explain their observation in some very familiar terms. This is the well-known and labeled psychological process of "assimilation." People first try to assimilate their observation into something understood and known and familiar.

This is quite contrary to the kind of argument frequently built into the hypothesis of hysterical contagion, namely, that characteristically witnesses are eager, are motivated, to see strange objects.

Another important thing to notice about the witnesses in these cases is of course their reluctance to report. We have had some mention of that. This, for one thing, counters the argument of publicity seeking as a motive in some of the best cases. It incidentally runs contrary to most experience of social psychologists engaged in public opinion research, in polling, and contrary to the experience of experienced precinct workers in politics. Those people who have not tried this kind of thing expect people not to want to talk to them, but when you start ringing doorbells, the striking thing about the American people is it is often difficult to stop them from telling you what they believe. Yet in instances of unidentified flying objects, there has often been a marked reluctance to talk about them.

I can illustrate this anecdotally simply to make my point. When I was on the faculty at the University of Minnesota, a student came to me, having heard that I had some interest in this question. He informed me that his father, a colonel, an artillery colonel in Korea -- this was at the time of the Korean conflict -- had flown over a hill in Korea in his observer plane, and found (right next to him virtually) a characteristic unidentified flying object with the usual kind of configuration. It had promptly retreated upwards. It had frightened him, but he was an experienced and trained observer, so he took notes on it; he recorded it. When he returned he was so ridiculed and laughed at for a long period of time that he completely gave up trying to have this taken seriously. He refused to talk about it.

I urged this student to get his father to report this to some of the private organizations that might take it seriously, and he apparently was unable to do so. The ridicule suppressed the opportunity for this information.

I have encountered similar things in academic colleagues from a variety of fields, finding they are very interested and wanting to hear about this, but are afraid to talk about.

In order to support the hysterical contagion hypothesis, it seems to me we need to present some plausible evidence:

First, that there is a very ambiguous situation. This we can all agree upon.

Second, that there is a great deal of anxiety and concern about it. This appears clearly to be the case.

Third, some plausible evidence of contact among the witnesses, either directly by conversing with one another, or indirectly by being exposed to the same information, the same stimuli. In cases that I have studied. I find that this third element is the one that is often lacking, that there are often witnesses who appear not to have had prior knowledge, not to have had contact with one another, not to have been exposed, as far as we can determine, to the same news information.

I might throw in here, in reference to a remark Dr. Hynek made, that the public is indeed very unwilling to accept the kinds of casual and bland explanations that have been offered. This has been my experience also, and is indeed an index of the amount of concern and anxiety about this, it appears to me.

Now I will turn to another subject. I might summarize in one sentence that in my eyes the hypothesis that the hard-core cases of observed UFO's is hysterical contagion is highly improbable. The weight of evidence is strongly against it.

Now I would like to address the question of what has brought about this situation of strongly opposing beliefs that seem not to become reconciled with one another. On this I will have to digress first to explain briefly what I mean by a system of beliefs in social psychology.

Perhaps the best way to explain that is to say that just as nature abhors a vacuum, nature abhors an isolated belief. Neither a belief nor the person who holds it can normally persist very long in isolation. The beliefs become organized in such a way that, for one person, his various beliefs support one another, and people gather together in organizations to lend each other support in their beliefs. This is the sense in which we have highly developed systems of belief which come to resist change, to resist evidence.

The circumstances under which systems of belief such as this characteristically arise are, as I mentioned in passing before, a situation of ambiguity about a matter of importance on which there is not reliable, verified information in which people have confidence. Clearly the antidote is simple. It is to get good, reliable information which people have confidence in.

This is probably the only way to weaken the irrational elements that are strongly resistant.

Finally, I want to comment to some extent on the probable consequences of each of the most important explanations that has been offered, and what might be done in the public interest in each instance to counter the negative aspect of these consequences.

Let's suppose to start with that these are extraterrestrial devices of some sort visiting our atmosphere. If this is the case, we for one thing have to concern ourselves with the possible consequences of contact with civilizations which are technologically very advanced and whose values we know nothing about. It is very tempting to the anthropomorphic, to attribute human characteristics to any such life form hypothesized, and to imagine, like humans, they might be hostile and might cause us some danger.

I know of no hard evidence of danger, of threat, from the cases reported. But we do not have any inkling, if indeed these are extraterrestrial devices, as to their purpose. We have no hard evidence as to their purpose, their intent, their motives, so to speak.

Consequently, I find it extremely difficult to even speculate in an intelligent way about what might result from contact with them. I can say a very great risk of contact, if this is the case, is the risk of panic, and panic is often very harmful to us mere humans, as in theater fires and so on.

Once again from all knowledge in sociology and social psychology, the best way to counter this risk of panic is not to issue reassuring statements, but to find sound information in which people have confidence which can reduce their anxiety about the situation, and explain it adequately. This to me has been one of the most unfortunate and possibly dangerous aspects of this problem, that the ridicule, the tendency not to take the problem seriously, to issue reassurances rather than good information, has in my opinion only maximized the risk of panic, at least under this hypothesis, and I relieve under the others as well.

Another risk, if these are extraterrestrial devices is clearly the risk of misinterpreting the devices as hostile devices from another country on earth, which might trigger indeed a devastating nuclear war. Once again, the same conclusions follow about the need for good information.

Mr. Roush. Might not another conclusion be that if there should be something to this, again, if there should be perhaps it would bring all the people of the world together for a better understanding, a common purpose, and a common stand, which probably would relieve us of some of our own anxieties?

Dr. Hall. This is indeed within the range of possibility, though I hesitate to speculate on the probability.

Mr. Roush. You don't have to speculate. Go ahead.

Dr. Hall. The final comment about probable effect, if these are indeed extraterrestrial devices, is of course the possibility of learning something of great technological value from them. The possible value of contact for purposes of advancing our knowledge of our technology.

Let's turn then to another hypothesis, which is this is a natural phenomenon which we do not understand, something like plasma. In this case, I think we have precisely the same risk of panic through misinterpretation resulting in precisely the same recommendation for the need for understanding to reduce the risk of panic.

I think we have precisely the same risk of misinterpretation as hostile aircraft, with again the same resulting recommendation.

I think we have again the same possible great value from understanding the phenomenon in order to advance our knowledge. The third major hypothesis, explanation, which I cited above, is that even the most solid and plausible cases reported are results of mass hysteria and hysterical contagion. I simply note that if this is the case, I regard it as prima facie evidence that we badly need to improve our understanding of mass hysteria, of the process of belief formation, of the means by which we might control the kinds of anxiety that produce this problem.

In this situation there is still the dangerous risk of panic, even if there is no physical phenomenon underlying these reports. There is still the risk of misinterpretation of hostile aircraft, and I would submit that there is still the great potential benefit from studying it thoroughly and scientifically, in this case the gain being a gain in sociological and psychological knowledge, which would be of obvious importance if all of this is caused simply by mass hysteria.

I have a few conclusions and recommendations which I have written out. I will try to tie these to what others have said as I go along.

My first conclusion would be that no matter what explanation you accept, we have here a rare opportunity for gaining some useful knowledge by a thorough detached study of UFO reports, and a systematic gathering of new information, hopefully with good instrumentation, and good, well-trained interviewing teams.

My second conclusion would be that hysteria and contagion of belief can account for some of the reports, but there is strong evidence that there is some physical phenomena underlying a portion of the reports.

Third, I would conclude that because of the lack of trustworthy information the systems of conflicting beliefs has been built up to account for a very ambiguous set of circumstances. Each of these positions is sometimes defended beyond the point of rationality.

Fourth, I would repeat my earlier statement as a conclusion, that whether or not there is a physical phenomenon underlying a portion of the reports, we clearly have a social psychological problem of subduing these irrational systems of belief, defense of beliefs, of lowering the anxiety about these reports, and of reducing the ambiguity about their nature.

The recommendations that I had written out were two -- excuse me, were three, and overlap considerably with the comments of my colleagues. I would say that the most important matter is to promote the fullest possible free circulation of all the available information about this phenomena. This should help reduce risks of panic and other dangerous irrational actions. It should help to weaken these systems of belief, the irrational elements in them. Here I would say indifference, or disinterest on the part of national leaders can retard our learning about this phenomenon, and open interest and encouragement can help.

I believe you are performing a fine service in having this kind of open inquiry. This whole matter badly needs to be treated as something deserving serious study.

The second recommendation I have to make concerns some general lines of research that would seem to me called for. One of these seems to me would be to take the 100 or 200 cases per year that seem to be reliably reported and reasonably well documented, and to study them carefully for recurring patterns' with emphasis on the way they react to their environment, the way they react to light sources, the way they react to presence of humans and so on.

The second form of research would be, I think to study explicitly those portions of the problem that do result from mass hysteria, apparently. These need to be studied intensively, quite apart from the question of the physical phenomena, to improve our understanding of mass hysteria and panic, and its possibly dangerous consequences.

In doing this I think it is terribly important that particular observations be studied by the scientists of a variety of disciplines, that the study of the hysteria hypothesis not be separated from the others. If it is, there is a tendency to make this hypothesis the garbage can for otherwise unexplained sightings.

The third type of study that seems to me terribly important, but my colleagues at the table can speak with more authority than I, is the systematic gathering of new cases with good scientific instrumentation, the kind of work in quantitative evidence that would give us much more to go on.

The third recommendation I had to suggest was that possibly in addition to a careful scientific investigation and study of this phenomenon, it might be fruitful to set up formally an adversary proceeding modeled after our system of jurisprudence. There is a tendency for us academics to sit on fences as long as we possibly can, and I think that if there were several teams of investigators who were assigned the responsibility much the way a prosecuting attorney or defense attorney is, assigned the responsibility to make the strongest possible case for one of the systems of explanation, that this would challenge the others, and force them to find more solid evidence.

It would try to benefit from some of the valuable features we have in our system of jurisprudence.

That concludes my presentation, except to comment briefly on how this relates to the suggestion of my colleagues. I would certainly enthusiastically agree with Dr. Hynek's suggestion of a board of inquiry, or some competent group to study the phenomenon.

I would certainly agree with Dr. McDonald's view that a variety of approaches would be fruitful, that a single study has many disadvantages. I have taken an interest for a number of years in the problems of the support of academic institutions by Government and I think that we are most likely to proceed to some good knowledge rapidly if we don't put all our eggs in one basket.

I certainly agree with Dr. Sagan's view that there are these very intense predisposing emotional factors for each of these beliefs. Somehow we need to weaken those.

Finally, on the idea of UN cooperation, this had not occurred to me, but I think it is an excellent idea. If it is possible to establish some detached international agency that can bring about free, open flow of information, and some cooperation internationally in investigating this, it would be helpful.

Thank you, Mr. Roush.

Mr. Roush. Thank you, Dr. Hall.

Are there questions?

The prepared statement of Dr. Hall:


From the point of view of a social psychologist, UFO reports present us with a most interesting and challenging situation. To a social psychologist the known facts appear to be facts about people and the things that they are saying and doing. First, many people, all over the world, including reliable and knowledgeable witnesses, keep reporting puzzling flying objects, and the reports have certain recurrent features. Second, several competing systems of belief have grown up to explain these reports, with some rational men supporting each of several different explanations. Third, as any sociologist would predict, the systems of belief have, to a large extent, become rooted in complex organizations of people: some organizations have been created to defend a particular position about UFOs; some organizations whose main purposes are remote from UFOs have been drawn into the controversy and found themselves committed to defending a position.

Nearly all rational observers appear to be agreed that the great majority of reported sightings of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) can be explained as misidentifications of familiar phenomena, with an occasional hoax contributing to the confusion. However, there are approximately 100 to 200 cases per year, based upon apparently sound testimony, with recurrent features of appearance, movement, and reaction to the environment. Strong disagreement arises over these cases.

One major area of disagreement is the question whether any novel physical phenomenon underlies these reports or whether they are simply a miscellaneous collection of familiar phenomena, misidentified because of mass hysteria and misperceived as having recurrent features because of a process of hysterical contagion. Among those who believe that there is a physical phenomenon, there are, in turn, several alternative explanations as to what it is. A substantial number argue that there are technological devices or vehicles entering our atmosphere from the outside. A substantial number argue that there is a novel natural phenomenon, as yet ill understood, such as a form of plasma or "ball lightning." There are other explanations supported by some people, such as the belief that "space animals" are swimming around in our atmosphere, or that these objects are secret devices manufactured somewhere on earth. In my judgment these last two explanations fit the available evidence so poorly that I shall not deal with them further. We might, then, label the three major hypotheses: (1) Mass hysteria and contagion; (2) Extraterrestrial devices; (3) New natural phenomenon.

My comments, as a social psychologist, will be organized around three major questions: (1) What has brought about this situation of competing systems of belief, strongly held and often unresponsive to the observed facts, and how can we modify the situation? (2) Is the mass hysteria hypothesis a plausible one, and can it account adequately for the known facts? (3) For each of the major explanations, what would be the probable consequences if the explanation were true, and what actions or precautions might be taken in the public interest?

How did the present situation come about? Much sociological research on rumor and belief systems indicates that ambiguity about an important matter begets improvised news. To the extent that trusted information is not available. systems of belief are generated to fill the gap. A recent scholarly work by Shibutani describes a rumor as a kind of improvised news which "... arises in situations of tension when ordinary communication channels are not operating adequately." (Shibutani, 1966, p. 57). Shibutani further argues that people are always being confronted with new circumstances which are not clearly and adequately treated by trusted channels of information, and therefore rumors are a normal and important part of men's efforts to adapt to their environment (p. 161, 182-183). Alternative explanations of UFO reports have arisen because of a lack of sound, authoritative information in which people have confidence. This is a normal and usual reaction to such situations of ambiguity.

In order to complete my answer about how the present situation came about, I must digress briefly to explain what I mean by a "system of belief." Just as nature abhors a vacuum, nature abhors an isolated belief. Neither a belief nor the person who holds it can normally persist long in isolation. Each person's beliefs tend to become organized into an interdependent system of beliefs which support one another. Also, people who share important beliefs typically become organized into social groups in which members support one another's beliefs. Hence a particular belief, such as the belief that there is no new physical phenomenon underlying UFO reports, is intricately tied in with two systems -- a system of related beliefs by the same person, and a social system of people who share similar beliefs. Many social psychologists have analyzed and documented this kind of phenomenon (e.g., Festinger, 1957; Simmons. 1964; Smith, Bruner, and White, 1950).

In circumstances such as those described, the ambiguous situation is often associated with widespread anxiety, and the belief systems which arise characteristically contain elements of hysteria which may increase the likelihood of panic or other irrational action (see Smelser, 1963). New beliefs which are improvised to reduce the ambiguity often are assimilated into preexisting belief systems, such as the beliefs of religious cults, so that, in effect, the ambiguous situation is used to manufacture support for preexisting beliefs. Once a situation of competing belief systems is established, probably the only way to modify it very much is by attacking the conditions which brought it about -- that is, the lack of authoritative, trusted information.

My second major question, stated above, was: "Is the mass hysteria hypothesis a plausible one, and can it account adequately for the known facts?" First, let me reiterate the facts which we are trying to explain: numerous reliable reports, and recurrent features in these reports. When a large number of people report observations that share many details of appearance and behavior, one of three things must be the case: either they are observing the same phenomenon, or they have been exposed to the same sources of information which have influenced them to expect to see certain things, or they have been in mutual contact and influenced one another in some fashion. If the mass hysteria, hypothesis is to beheld plausible, we need to show that separate people reporting the same details have been in touch with each other or with some common source of information. The independence of the separate observers becomes a crucial question.

In determining the plausibility of this hypothesis, a second major concern is the credibility of testimony. Much of our legal system is based upon the assumption that we can, under appropriate conditions, accept human testimony as factual. Social psychologists are certainly not alone in having developed criteria for assessing the credibility of testimony; attorneys are thoroughly familiar with such criteria. In assessing testimony we customarily consider such questions about the witness as his reputation in his community, whether he has any apparent motive for prevarication or distortion, whether he has previous familiarity with the things reported. In addition we consider internal characteristics of his report, such as the recency and duration of the events reported, the number and type of specific observable details reported as apart from reports that are primarily interpretations, the inclusion of details that are independently verifiable (such as physical effects). Also testimony is, of course, more credible if there are multiple witnesses, especially ones who are completely independent of one another; if there have been different means of observation (e.g., both visual and auditory, or unaided observation and observation through instruments); and if the testimony is gathered by qualified, careful interviewers.

In my judgment there are many reports of UFOs that meet the above criteria quite well -- better, indeed, than many court cases which a judge and jury accept. In some of these cases, no familiar explanation can be found that fits the evidence. I shall digress briefly to describe a few cases.

Consider the case of two police officers near Red Bluff, California, on August 13, 1960. They saw a large object descending and at first thought it was an airliner about to crash. They jumped from their patrol car and noticed that the object made no discernible noise. They watched it descend to an estimated 100 or 200 feet, then reverse itself at high speed, and finally stop and hover at an estimated 500 feet. They described details of shape, color, and movement. They radioed the sheriff's office to contact a local radar base and were informed that the radar base reported an unidentified radar return at the same location as their visual observation. They reported details of the object's behavior and their own. They tried to approach the object and it retreated; when they remained stationary, the object approached their car. They reported that the object retreated when they turned on the patrol car's red light. After prolonged observation the object began to move away, and they followed slowly. They saw it join another similar object and finally disappear over the horizon. Altogether they watched the object for about two hours and fifteen minutes. Their report was prompt, thorough and written, and contained details which are contained in many other UFO reports. Immediately after losing sight of the object, the officers returned to the sheriff's office and met two deputies who reported the same observation. The officers were men of good reputation, and there is no indication of prior interest in UFOs nor prior knowledge of the kinds of details reported (e.g. the red light beam emitted by the object and radio interference each time it came near). These men have subsequently been contacted by people with scientific training and have confirmed various details of their report.

Another case of interest occurred near White Plains, New York, in late summer, 1954, and was reported by James Beatty, an experienced ground observer corps supervisor in an Air Force Filter Center. At about 9:50 p.m. an observer team about 20 miles southeast of Poughkeepsie saw an object similar in apparent size to the moon. At the same time they could see the moon, which was not full. They watched the object for about 20 or 30 minutes and then it moved slowly southeastward. According to the report of the supervisor, two radar stations had fixes corresponding to the visual sighting, and jets were scrambled from two airbases. As the jets approached the object, both the pilots and the ground observers report that the object changed color, moved upward at very high speed, and disappeared. At this point radar contact was lost, too.

In the vicinity of Levelland, Texas, on the night of November 2-3, 1957, there were ten separate sightings by several people, including police officers, over a period of approximately 2 1/2 hours. The descriptions were similar in several important details of visual appearance. Several observers independently reported that their cars' engines and headlights quit working when the object was close. This kind of effect has been frequently reported but had not been publicized prior to this group of reports in Levelland. In most instances it is clear that the witnesses around Levelland were going about their usual business and were surprised by the sighting; they had not been alerted to watch for a strange object.

These are only three cases out of many (see Hall, 1964, and U.S. Air Force, 1968). They are reported only sketchily here, but much more detail is available (see Hall, 1964). I introduce them only to illustrate the kinds of evidence available relevant to the hypothesis of mass hysteria to account for UFO sightings. I am forced to the conclusions that there are many sightings by multiple observers and that many observers are reliable and independently report similar details. In many instances it appears highly unlikely that they could have been exposed to similar detailed information in advance (e.g., the electrical interference effects at Levelland).

Social psychologists have studied a number of cases of mass hysteria and hysterical contagion (Cantril, 1940; Johnson, 1945; Kerckhoff & Back, 1968; Medalia & Larsen, 1958). In my judgment the "hard-core" reports of UFOs do not resemble those documented cases. Those cases were generally short-lived -- a day, a week, or at most a few weeks; UFO reports have persisted for decades, at least, despite much ridicule and very little recent press coverage of serious cases. The documented cases of mass hysteria have not involved calm, prolonged observations such as the police officers near Red Bluff, California. The documented cases have had some plausible indication that the people involved have been in touch with one another (Kerckhoff & Back, 1968) or previously exposed in common to the information that they incorporate into a report (e.g., Johnson, 1945; Medalia & Larsen, 1958). The documented cases have not been worldwide, as are UFO reports. They have not involved phenomena that were simultaneously observed through such different media as direct visual contact and radar contact. In documented cases of mass hysteria I do not know of evidence of people reluctant to report; in UFO sightings there are numerous such cases. The hypothesis of mass hysteria does not, in my judgment, fit the "hard-core" reports very satisfactorily.

The third, and last, of the three major questions which I raised at the beginning was: For each of the major explanations, what are the likely consequences, and what actions or precautions might we take in the public interest?

First, let us suppose that there are extraterrestrial devices entering our atmosphere from the outside. We must then concern ourselves with the possible consequences of contact with technologically advanced civilizations whose values, or intentions, or motives are totally unknown to us. It appears to me an almost impossible task to predict the probable effects of contact between our earthly civilization and another civilization without making some clearcut assumptions about their values and motives. I have not been able to find any rational basis for defending particular assumptions of this kind, and I shall not attempt the task. We must also be concerned with the risks of panic resulting in people hurting one another, even if the assumed extraterrestrial visitors mean no harm. This risk could be markedly reduced by preparing the public for the eventuality -- by treating it as a serious possibility that must be discussed. The greatest risk of panic would come from a dramatic confrontation between the assumed "visitors" and a collection of humans who were unprepared and had been told that their leaders did not believe such visitors existed. Another risk is that we might misinterpret such devices as weapons of another country and thereby accidentally trigger nuclear war. If these are extraterrestrial devices, we have, of course, a great opportunity to learn from their technology, which would appear to be very advanced in certain respects by our terrestrial standards.

Second, let us suppose that this is a novel natural phenomenon which we do not understand. Under this assumption we still run the risk of panic if a crowd of people are confronted with a case of the phenomenon without any preparation. We still run the risk of misinterpreting an occurrence as a hostile weapon system. Also, it is a reasonable assumption that we might reap scientific and technological benefit from understanding such a puzzling thing that appears to involve some kind of concentration of energy.

Third, let us suppose that the whole persistent business of UFO reports over the years is strictly a social psychological phenomenon—a new and extreme case of mass hysteria and hysterical contagion. In this event the underlying anxiety must indeed be massive and the risk of panic accordingly very great unless we can introduce trusted information and reduce the ambiguity and anxiety. Under this assumption -- if atmospheric and astronomical observations can be so badly misinterpreted and so badly reported by many people of good reputation and good education -- then I would judge that we run great risk of misinterpreting those same phenomena as hostile weapons, and we must prepare for this risk. Most important, if this whole business is a social psychological phenomenon, then this is prima facie evidence of the urgent need to improve our understanding of the processes of mass hysteria, belief formation, and means of controlling the kinds of anxiety that generate such a problem. In this event the UFO reports present an unsurpassed natural laboratory for research on mass hysteria, human response to ambiguity, standards for assessment of human testimony, and other related matters.


1. No matter which explanation is correct, we have a rare opportunity for gaining useful knowledge by a thorough, detached study of UFO reports and a more systematic gathering of new evidence.

2. Hysteria and contagion of belief can account for some of the reports of UFOs, but the weight of evidence suggests strongly that there must be some kind of physical phenomenon which underlies a portion of the reports.

3. Because of the lack of trustworthy information about UFO reports, systems of conflicting belief have been built up to account for this ambiguous set of circumstances, and each position is sometimes defended beyond the point of rationality.

4. Whether or not there is a physical phenomenon underlying a portion of the reports, we now have, in addition to any other problem, a social psychological problem of subduing irrational defense of beliefs, lowering anxiety about the reports, and reducing ambiguity about the causes of the reports.

5. Our lack of understanding of UFO reports forces us to run unnecessary risks of panic and of accidental triggering of nuclear war.


1. The most important and urgent matter is to promote the fullest possible circulation of all available information about UFOs and to encourage systematic gathering of new evidence. This should help to reduce the risks of panic and other dangerous irrational actions. This should also help to weaken the irrational elements incorporated into opposing systems of belief. Indifference or disinterest on the part of national leaders can retard our learning about the phenomenon at hand; open interest and encouragement can help. The whole matter needs to be treated as something deserving serious study.

2. At least three lines of serious research should be undertaken: (a) For the 100 to 200 cases per year that are reliably reported and well documented, we need to study carefully reports of recurring patterns of behavior by the phenomenon, including its apparent reaction to other events in the environment with emphasis upon establishing independence or non-independence of separate witnesses, (b) Those portions of the problem that result from mass hysteria need to be studied intensively to improve our understanding of mass hysteria toward the end of controlling its potentially dangerous consequences, (c) Some systematic means of monitoring and observing should be developed so as to add well documented new cases with specific reports of details obtained independently from different observers.

3. Serious consideration might be given to the idea of setting up a formal adversary proceeding, modeled after our system of justice. Just as courts have attorneys assigned to build the best possible case for the prosecution and others to build the best case for defense, we might have a staff assigned to build the strongest possible case for each of the three major explanations of UFO reports. If each had to confront the others and answer their criticisms, we would probably force a clearer focus on the crucial points that need to be settled.

My closing comment returns to my starting point. The situation that we face in UFO reports is an exciting and challenging one which presents a rare scientific opportunity, no matter whose interpretation and explanation you may accept.


  • Bauer, R. A. and Gleicher, D.B., 1953. "Word-of-mouth communication in the Soviet Union". Public Opinion Quarterly, 17, 1953, 297-310.
  • Cantril, H., 1940. "The invasion from Mars". Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1940.
  • Festinger, L., 1957. "A theory of cognitive dissonance". Evanston: Row-Peterson, 1957.
  • Hall, R. H. (ed.), 1964. "The UFO evidence". Washington, D.C.: N.I.C.A.P., 1964.
  • Johnson, D. M., 1945. "The "phantom anaesthetist" of Mattoon": a field study of mass hysteria. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1945. 40, 175-186. Kerckhoff, A. C., and Back, K., 1968. The June Bug. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1968.
  • Medalia, N. Z., and Larsen, O. N., 1958. "Diffusion and belief in a collective delusion: the Seattle windshield pitting epidemic". American Sociological Review, 1958, 23, 180-186.
  • Shibutani, T., 1966. "Improvised news: a sociological study of rumor". Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966.
  • Simmons, J. L., 1964. "On maintaining deviant belief systems: a case study". Social Problems, 11, 1964, 250-256.
  • Smelser, N., 1963. "Theory of collective behavior". New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1963.
  • Smith, M. B., Bruner, J. S. and White, R. W., 1956. "Opinions and Personality". New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1956.
  • U.S. Air Force, 1968. "Projects Grudge and Bluebook Reports 1-12" (1951-1953). Washington, D.C.: N.I.C.A.P., 1968.


The Red Bluff case is presented here.

The Levelland cases are presented here.

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