Sceptics have long told us that so-called alien abduction experiences can be reduced to neurological and psychological mechanisms and responses. These researchers cite temporal lobe epilepsy, fantasy-proneness, false memory syndrome, sleep paralysis, psychopathology and electromagnetic allergens as explanations.
There have been a number of studies that on the face of it indicate that percipients belong to a group that is prone to fantasise. Nickell (1996) did a retrospective study on 13 abductees featured in John Mack’s book Abduction: Human encounters with aliens. He isolated seven fantasy-prone indicators based on Wilson and Barber’s “Inventory of Childhood Memories and Imaginings” (1983). He studied what Mack had written about the abductees to see if any of the above applied to them. Nickell found that all of Mack’s subjects exhibited all or most of the “seven fantasy-prone indicators”.
In June 2005, Professor Christopher French presented a paper at Liverpool Hope University College entitled “Psychological and parapsychological aspects of the alien contact experience”. Part of the paper related to fantasy-proneness. The 19 percipients and 19 controls completed Wilson and Barber’s “Inventory of Childhood Memories and Imaginings”. French and his associates found a significant result for higher fantasy-proneness in the percipients.
Bartholomew, Basterfield and Howard (1991) carried out a study to discover if psychopathology or fantasy-proneness could explain abduction experiences. It involved a biographical analysis of 152 participants. The researchers found that the percipients were “remarkably devoid of a history of mental illness” (other study results concur with this; see Bloecher 1985, Parnell 1988, Parnell 1990, Bartholomew 1991, Rodeghier 1991, Spanos 1993). However, using the Wilson-Barber scale they found that in 132 cases “one or more major characteristic” of the fantasy-prone personality were evident. Other studies have found no positive correlation between fantasy-proneness and alien abduction percipients.
I decided I wanted to carry out my own psychological study to determine if percipients did have certain personality traits in common. I wanted to measure differences between percipients and controls across measures of fantasy-proneness, emotional intelligence and aspects of personality. I am indebted to Dr Paul Rogers of the University of Central Lancashire for advising and assisting me.
There were a total of 52 participants for both stages of the study; one sample of 26 with a background of alien abduction experiences, and a control sample of 26 with no such background. The two samples were matched for age and gender. There were six males and 20 females in each sample. The percipients were from Britain, the USA and Australia. The controls were all white British.
For the first stage of the study, taken by the abductee sample alone, I devised an Alien Abduction Experiences Scale which identified the core components of the phenomenon. A ‘core component’ was one which is experienced by 51 per cent or more of abductees. There were a few surprises when the results were analysed.
It is suggested that false memories are created by therapists during hypnotic regression to probe ‘missing time’, but almost a quarter had an overt memory of the supposed events. This supports the findings of Bullard and Mack (1989) who report a figure of “approximately 30 per cent”. The retrieval of buried ‘memories’ through hypnosis has been widely criticised, but over 80 per cent of our percipients said they had ‘remembered’ by experiencing ‘flashbacks or dreams’. The natural leaching through of real suppressed traumatic events is accepted by therapists and clinical psychologists.
Almost 85 per cent answered positively to the item headed ‘paralysis on waking’. Over 96 per cent said they had experienced strange beings in the bedroom. The conclusion here is that a sizeable minority awaken to witness beings without suffering paralysis. Almost a third experience paralysis while fully awake and in locations other than the bedroom as a prelude to an abduction event. Are sleep paralysis and the paralysis experienced by percipients different phenomena? Spanos et al (1993) found that 40 per cent of abduction-related experiences were not connected with sleep. My own investigations seem to support this.
I viewed the records of one abductee who had been investigated by 11 neurologists for temporal lobe epilepsy, sleep paralysis and hypnogogic hallucinations. After 10 years of medical drugs, examinations and tests, temporal lobe epilepsy was ruled out. It was suggested that sleep paralysis coupled with hypnogogic imagery must be the answer – even though many of the percipient’s episodes were while she was awake and mobile, and on one major occasion, in the company of family members who shared the experience.
A British police officer described to me how he had suffered paralysis as a prelude to a paranormal event. He was in a parked vehicle at the time with another officer when a strange figure materialised at his side of the car, dematerialised and reappeared at the other side, before vanishing. Sleep paralysis? This officer was wide awake, and in the company of another witness, who wasn’t paralysed.
Other interesting results were that almost 70 per cent suffered orifice bleeding post-abduction, and more than half stated that as children small orbs of light had appeared in their bedrooms. Just under half of female percipients said they had experienced unusual pregnancies, and 65 per cent of the abductee sample said they had been plagued by humming/droning sounds around the house. Seventy-five per cent said that electrical items would malfunction in their presence, and a similar number said they suffered out-of-body experiences. A high 88 per cent revealed they experienced minor premonitions. Half believed they had suffered physical illness as a consequence of abduction.
For the second stage of our study, we asked the two samples to complete three self-report questionnaires: The Thirty-Three Item Emotional Intelligence Scale (Schutte et al 1997), The Creative Experiences Questionnaire (Merckelbach et al 2000) and the Ten Item Personality Inventory (Gosling et al 2003).
The results showed that abductees had a significantly better appraisal of their own and other people’s emotions than the controls. There were no significant differences between the two samples for agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, extraversion and openness to experience. Also, there were no significant differences for the creative experiences sub-factors between the two groups. Fantasy-proneness levels were no higher than those found in the general population. This concurred with some other studies (Rodeghier et al 1991, Spanos et al 1993) So why then have other studies found higher fantasy-proneness in percipients compared to controls?
Jo Nickell’s 1996 retrospective study of the 13 abductees from Mack’s book requires a closer look.
The results, from a study based on secondhand evidence, are less reliable than one where the researcher is dealing directly with the participants. Conclusions from such results may therefore be unreliable. Mack could have misrepresented his subjects – he may have left out vital evidence, or exaggerated some details.
Then there are Nickell’s seven “fantasy-prone indicators”: susceptibility to hypnosis; “paraidentity” (imaginary companions/dual identities/past lives); floating or psychic experiences; out-of-body experiences; vivid or “waking” dreams; visions or hallucinations; hypnotically generated apparitions; and receipt of special messages.
To label phenomena like precognition, out-of-body experiences and encounters with apparitions as “fantasy-prone indicators” assumes that they have been ruled out as having any objective reality. As there is some scientific evidence for such phenomena (albeit ambiguous and controversial), it could be argued that relegating them to fantasy-proneness does not demonstrate scientific objectivity. McLeod, Corbisier and Mack (1996) comment: “Those scientists who are interested in investigating alien abduction are careful to report that they do not believe in the reality of the reports.”
French also found a significant result for fantasy-proneness in percipients compared to controls (French, Santomauro, Hamilton, Fox, Thalbourne, 2005). However, a question mark hangs over the suitability of the 19 percipients used in the study. French himself admitted in the paper presented to Liverpool Hope University College (2005) that his sample was not composed purely of abductees: “It was originally intended that only experiencers meeting strict criteria (Rodeghier, 1994) corresponding to the ‘classic’ abduction scenario would be included in the project. It quickly became apparent, however, that it would prove to be simply too difficult to recruit such experiencers in sufficient numbers and it was thus decided to accept into the experiencer category anyone who claimed to have had extraterrestrial contact.”
Researchers in the alien contact field generally draw a distinction between those who exhibit components of the alien abduction experience, and those who claim to be in contact with extraterrestrials. McLeod, Corbisier and Mack (1996) comment: “This population [abductees] should be differentiated from contactees, who report alien contact and who often feel more positive and in control than experiencers. The anomalous experiences of contactees are usually more ego syntonic [acceptable to the needs of the ego] and thus might represent a completely different experience or a different defensive structure on the part of the reporter.”
The Bartholomew (et al) 1991 study of fantasy-proneness found “one or more major characteristics” in 132 out of 152 participants. This study also suffered from the flaws found in others where percipients have scored positively on measures of fantasy-proneness. The analysis was carried out on secondhand biographical information, the sample included abductees and contactees, and there was no control group for comparison.
The results of Stage Two of our study (using both the abductee and control samples) demonstrate there are no differences in emotional intelligence, fantasy-proneness, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability (neuroticism), and openness to experience between abductees and the non-abductee population. This builds on research which also shows that abductees are not more hypnotisable than controls, nor are they pathological.
RE Bartholomew, K Basterfield & GS Howard: “UFO abductees and contactees: Psychopathology or fantasy-proneness?”, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 22 (3) pp215–222, 1991.
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TE Bullard: “Hypnosis and UFO abductions: A troubled relationship”, Journal of UFO Studies 1, pp3–40, 1989.
CC French, J Santomauro, V Hamilton, R Fox & M Thalbourne: “Psychological and parapsychological aspects of the alien contact experience”. Paper presented to the Conference on Developing Perspectives on Anomalous Experience at Liverpool Hope University College, 4 June 2005.
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