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Do UFO Witnesses Have a Distinct Psychological Profile?

[CNI News editor Michael Lindemann met with respected Danish UFO researcher Per Andersen during the recent World UFO Forum in Brazil. In his lecture, Andersen noted a problem in UFO research that many other researchers prefer to downplay or ignore: the possibility that sincere witnesses can experience "UFOs" that are not products of unconventional or paranormal phenomena, but instead products of human psychology and social conditioning. Predictably, the response to Andersen's lecture was less than enthusiastic. But his message, which reflects a strong trend in UFO research not only in Denmark but also in France and several other European countries, is based on some of the most serious and methodical testing yet applied to UFO witnesses, much of which has been conducted in the United States. Andersen readily admits that some UFO sightings might well involve genuinely unconventional phenomena, but he also believes there is a tendency among many researchers to jump to an "alien" explanation when a "psychological" explanation might suffice. In the following article, Andersen summarizes a body of research aimed at discovering if there exists a distinctive psychological profile among UFO witnesses. Andersen can be reached by email at]

By Per Andersen, M.Sc.
Chairman, Scandinavian UFO Information

Most of the discussions in the 1970s about UFO witness psychology focused on the issues of witness pathology, that is whether UFO witnesses were "normal" or "ill" compared to the general population. Some of the early arguments used the well- known (but wrong) argument: some psychopathological persons have UFO sightings, so UFO sightings must be due to psychopathological people.

One of the early speculations came from Grinspoon and Persky (Grinspoon 1972). Without much empirical evidence they put forward a number of pathological theories to explain sightings.

Much of this initial research was not really founded in empirical data. However, more recently a number of studies have been carried out, most of them using the MMPI test battery (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) to test for psychopathology among UFO witnesses. Most of these conclude, that UFO witnesses in general are not psychopathological (Bloecher 1985, Parnell 1988, Parnell 1990, Bartholomew 1991, Rodeghier 1991, Spanos 1993).

While most of the studies of the psychopathology of UFO witnesses have demonstrated no pathological patterns in general, many of the studies nevertheless have discovered some specific personal traits for various groups of witnesses.

It has been difficult in most studies uniquely to characterize these personality traits of UFO witnesses and to describe them in a simple way. To that it should be added, that traits described in different studies vary a great deal from each other.

In a [U.S.] Fund for UFO Research-sponsored experiment, 9 witnesses were tested for psychopathology (MMPI) and their personalities were described by Dr. Elizabeth Slater. All nine had reported UFO abductions. The most significant aspect of the experiment was, however, that Dr. Slater did not know what the 9 persons had in common (if anything) (Bloecher 1985).

Dr. Slater did in fact find some similarities between the nine subjects, although these were played down by the sponsors. She described the subjects as a very distinctive, unusual and interesting group. They did not represent an ordinary cross- section of the population from the standpoint of conventionality in lifestyle. Several of the subjects could be labelled downright "eccentric" or "odd". They had high intellectual abilities and richly evocative and charged inner worlds -- highly inventive, creative and original.

What then about "ordinary" UFO witnesses that have not been abducted or in regular contact with space beings, but have experienced what I would label low strangeness sightings of UFO phenomena? For these groups of witnesses also some special personality traits have been identified in various studies.

Over [a period of] 17 years, Dr. Leo Sprinkle [University of Wyoming] tested 225 persons reporting mixed UFO experiences ranging from a light in the sky to being abducted. A study of these 225 witnesses showed that they had profiles with certain unique characteristics. Witnesses exhibited a high level of psychic energy, a tendency to question authority or being subject to situational pressure or conflicts, and to be self-sufficient and resourceful. Other characteristic were: above-average intelligence, assertiveness and a tendency to be experimenting thinkers (Parnell 1988).

Another major study of 264 persons did not find any significant differences between witnesses of various types of sightings (Ring 1990). However, the research showed that UFO witnesses reported more sensitivity to non-ordinary realities and having a higher tendency towards dissociation. It also documented that UFO witnesses and people with near-death experiences had very similar personality traits. There also seems to be a significant relationship between having UFO sightings and the personal belief system of the witnesses. This has been documented by T.A. Zimmer who found relationships between sightings and belief in occultism and science fiction (Zimmer 1984, 1985) as well as Spanos et al from the University of Ottawa. They found that witnesses to low-strangeness sightings had a tendency to esoteric beliefs and belief in UFOs (Spanos 1993).

When working on excellent hypnotic subjects -- people that are very easy to hypnotize -- two Massachusets doctors discovered some significant personal traits in these people (Wilson 1981), [which] led to a change of focus for their research. Wilson and Barber defined a new personality type they labelled "fantasy prone". While this is a gradual scale, they formally defined the upper 4% of the population as the "fantasy prone" group (Wilson 1983).

Some of the key characteristics of fantasy prone persons are (Wilson 1983, Basterfield 1988):

*    They are easy to hypnotize
*    As children they played in a fantasy world
*    They believed in fairies, guardian angels, etc.
*    As children they had invisible playmates
*    Even as adults they spent a significant part of their time fantasizing
*    They often believe they have psychic abilities
*    Most have had out-of-body experiences
*    They often believe they have healing powers
*    They are subject to hypnagogic experiences
*    They have very vivid dreams
*    They have good memories
*    They receive messages from unknown forces

Others, such as Steven Jay Lynn and Judith W. Rhue, expanded the research to other groups of people as well as confirmed the validity of the theory (Lynn 1988, Rhue 1987). They also found that the group of fantasy prone people is not a simple group but a rather complex combination of people (Lynn 1988).

Discovery of the fantasy prone personality soon paved the way for ufologists still looking for some commonality in the personality traits of UFO witnesses. Could this common denominator be this "fantasy proneness"?

Some of the first to address this question were a ufologist, Keith Basterfield, and a sociologist, Robert E. Bartholomew. They noted that a contactee like Whitley Streiber had most of the characteristics of fantasy proneness (Bartholomew 1988). Looking at 152 abductees and contactees, again the conclusion was that most of these fell inside the definition of fantasy prone persons (Bartholomew 1991). More recently, Joe Nickell has shown that all 13 abductees in John Mack's book "Abduction" have most of the fantasy prone traits (Nickell 1996). However, actual empirical research using the formal test for fantasy proneness is sparse.

The Omega Project tested 264 persons but found no significant difference between UFO witnesses in general and a control group with regard to fantasy proneness (Ring 1990). However, the study had several major drawbacks: first the study did not use the test tool developed by Wilson and Barber but a very scaled down inventory that must be characterized as unreliable to carefully test for fantasy proneness. Second, the control group was not taken from the general population but only from people with a high interest in UFOs (albeit not witnesses). As it has already been documented that there is a clear relationship between sightings and UFO interest this makes the study dubious when trying to conclude about fantasy proneness.

The University of Ottawa study from 1993 had a more clear methodology and tested two different groups of UFO witnesses: Low intense (as we call low strangeness) and high intense (as we call high strangeness). Neither of the two groups showed higher tendency toward fantasy proneness compared to control groups of general population and students (Spanos 1993). It did, however, find a positive correlation between the score on the fantasy proneness scale and the intensity of the sightings. More intense experiences seemed to come from people with relatively higher scores on the fantasy proneness scale.

In conclusion, it seems that a group of abductees and contactees possibly can be characterized as "fantasy prone".

When discussing low strangeness cases in general there are no clear conclusions. While many studies note significant personality traits of UFO witnesses that in a number of cases relate to fantasy, personal belief systems or alternative realities, no clear evidence has been generated to link this with "fantasy proneness" defined by Wilson and Barber or any other distinct personality group.


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