The psychology behind the unknown

By Eric Stone
February 15, 2017

Picture from Pixaby

The Big Questions

As we get older, we begin to ask ourselves the big questions: who are we? Why are we here? What is the point of existence?

One of the more pressing questions that has arisen more and more in recent years, however, is the idea that we may not be completely alone in the universe. Of course, with any belief, the reason behind why people believe in these extra terrestrials derives from some psychological reason involving the nature of these creatures.

An article by psychologists Viren Swami, Jakob Pietschnig, Stefan Stieger and Martin Voracek explained the basic psychology behind the belief in extraterrestrials.

The general public in the West have reported that up to 50 percent of people believe that extraterrestrial life exists. Although most scientists are skeptical of claims that UFOs are of extraterrestrial origin, some areas of the general public consider UFOs to be evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Several factors come into play regarding the psychological factors that surround the belief in extraterrestrial life: superstitious beliefs, schizotypy, demographics and “The Big Five” factors.

Superstitious beliefs refer to interest in anomalies and the paranormal that are outside of the exposition of mainstream science. However, the correlation between superstitious elements and extraterrestrials is very ambiguous, as it is also possible that such beliefs all reflect a desire to believe in unorthodox ideas.

Patients who have shown signs of schizotypy, which is the prodromal phase of schizophrenia when people begin to develop a psychosis, have reported to have a general belief in the paranormal that comes hand-in-hand with their paranoia. Thus, the correlation between superstitious beliefs and extraterrestrials seem all the more apparent, as schizophrenics are generally believed to be superstitious.

The Big Five model of personality includes openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. These personality traits of agreeableness, neuroticism and extraversion are all linked to the belief in the supernatural as well, because those who possess these traits are generally very imaginative, creative and have high schizotypy scores.

Finally, the largest body of relevant information on extraterrestrial beliefs has focused on demographic antecedents of such beliefs. Many studies have supported that men are more likely than women to believe that UFOs are evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life and to believe in alien visitations. On the contrary, other studies have shown women hold more paranormal beliefs than men.

Personal Beliefs

While the belief in aliens may be completely disregarded by some as nonsensical, others turn to both scientific and existential reasons for their opinions. For many, aliens are a source of either fear, intrigue or both.

Conor Boston, a sophomore aerospace engineer from Pennsylvania State University, has a fascination with space and the great beyond. Boston showed interest regarding the possibility of extraterrestrial lifeforms and why people have such a preoccupation with believing in them.

“I think, in the scientific community, the belief in aliens derives from mostly an interest in the possibility of life outside the earth,” Boston said, “but for most people, I think it’s probably split between fear and interest in the possibility of other life.”

Though he showed interest in the topic, Boston himself spoke skeptically about the existence of actual aliens.

“I think the idea that there are little green men flying saucers around earth right now is improbable and kind of ridiculous,” Boston said, “but the belief that there is other life is a very probable and rational belief to have.”

However, Jessica Tangi, a sophomore from Neumann University, found these beliefs to be nothing more than a bunch of conspiracy theories with no factual evidence behind them.

“The belief of aliens only exists to distract people from the average stressors of everyday life,” Tangi said. “People like to make up stories to make life seem more theatrical and interesting than it really is.”

Boston also believed that the belief in extraterrestrials came from the idea of something bigger than ourselves.

“People believe in aliens because it’s hard to accept that we are alone in such a big universe, and pop culture and science fiction has brought to life the idea of aliens, especially those that are violent,” Boston said.

Corresponding to Boston’s comments about pop culture and science fiction bringing to life the idea of aliens, Dr. Andrew Owen, an assistant professor of sociology at Cabrini University, shared his love for aliens and the culture behind aliens in movies and TV.

“For me, the concept of aliens is related to popular culture,” Owen said. “Anything related to science fiction and horror tends to often be a society’s attempt to talk about concerns that it might have.”

Owen went on to explain in great detail the background of extraterrestrials in the media and how they have evolved over time. He mentions that after mechanized weapons evolved over the courses of both World Wars, the fear that mysterious lifeforms with unknown technology was particularly terrifying for many Americans.

Owen included that communism plays a big part in the fears listed above.

He also mentioned the idea of racial differences between aliens and human beings is startling to most people, as movies like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” have shown that these creatures could mimic our bodies to the point of being almost identical to us.

“The idea that one cell from this organism that goes into the human body may slowly pollute it,” Owen said, “so while it may appear human, it is in fact an alien, and is therefore dangerous to other people.”

“The alien, like any other creature or monster, is a symbol of society’s fears,” Owen said, “the symbolism changes, but the changes are reflecting a constant fear that society has, whether that is race, communism, biological disease or anything else like that.”

In addition, Dr. Leonard Primiano, the chair of religious studies at Cabrini University, spoke of similar topics regarding the fear of existing aliens. He referred to David Jacobs, an American historian and former associate professor of history at Temple University.

Jacobs has been known for his very controversial views on extraterrestrial life and alien abductions in the media. In his novel Secret Life: Firsthand, Documented Accounts of Ufo Abductions he writes in great detail about allegations of alien abductions and what occurs during them.

One claim that he makes is that aliens have abducted people for to sexual purposes, wanting to use them in order to reproduce and hide their identity through human flesh, concluding that alien hybrids are currently living amongst us. Jacobs included that at least 7 percent of the world’s population is being abducted by aliens, and many people who are abducted have no memory of it ever occurring.

As a result of his controversial beliefs, Jacobs has suffered much criticism and ridicule for his abstract views on extraterrestrial life and abductions.

Primiano asserted that he did not believe that these theoretical beliefs were ideas from the mentally insane and that most of these people are not any less normal than anyone else.

“I know the kind of people who are having these experiences, and they seem like very average people who are making these claims,” Primiano said. “It’s really fascinating to see the kinds of people that say they have had these experiences, including judges, doctors, ministers and as well as anyone else who has reported to have been abducted.”

Primiano also connected the belief of extraterrestrial life with the belief of God, as he often asks his students whether their opinion of religion would change if aliens were ever proven to exist. He believes that, if it came down to that, perhaps these aliens would be accepted into the church as one of God’s creatures.

“The belief that religion would collapse if aliens were proven to exist would really depend on what these extraterrestrials have to say to us,” Primiano said. “We have so many different fantasies about whether these aliens would be nice, nasty or life affirming that as a society, we all have completely different opinions regarding their nature.”

Opinions may vary wildly from person to person on the existence of extraterrestrials, however, the one general consensus most people can agree on is that we cannot know what these other lifeforms are or what they want from us unless they are ever discovered to exist.


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