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Exploring Mind, Memory, and the Psychology of Belief

Special Report

Thomas G. Genoni Jr.

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 19.1, January / February 1995

The 1994 CSICOP conference, held in Seattle, Washington, June 23 to 26, set out to explore the various ways in which our minds operate, how our views are formed, and how our memories can be influenced, altered, and even manufactured. Titled “The Psychology of Belief,” this lively four-day event, attended by more than 700 people from around the United States and abroad, featured sessions on UFOs and alien abductions, the highly controversial recovered-memory debate, expert testimony and pseudoscience in the courtroom, and conspiracy theories. There was also an unannounced visit from James Randi, who showed a videotape of his latest adventure in Australia accompanied by his always nimble-witted commentary. The highlight of the conference was the keynote address by Carl Sagan, who emphasized the need to popularize science and the potentially dangerous consequences of a society in which scientific understanding is in the hands of the few. (See his article in this issue.) But it was the first session, with Harvard professor of psychiatry John Mack discussing alien abductions, that created the most controversy.

Alien Abductions: Confrontation, Controversy

Robert Baker, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Kentucky, began the session by stating his position that almost all so- called UFO abductions are primarily a psychological phenomenon resulting from hypnotherapy. Regressive hypnosis, Baker contends, is an unreliable procedure because it unlocks the patient’s imagination: "Once you turn on the imagination, all things are possible.” Baker also said that sleep paralysis—a condition that can occur in the period between sleeping and waking—accompanied by hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations, can produce bizarre effects that may account for the vivid alien encounters so many have reported. Not only can these “waking dreams” result in startling apparitions, but they may also produce a range of physiological symptoms, including heightened audio perception, sensations of floating or falling, and even the feeling that some device has been implanted somewhere in the body. Although the predictability is low and the exact causes of such sleep disorders are not known—stress is believed to be a primary contributor—Baker reported that 4 to 5 percent of the American population have had such experiences on one or more occasions in their lives. Baker said that, except for variations in the hallucinatory content, the descriptions given by known sleep-paralysis patients are almost identical to the accounts of alleged alien abductees.

Although somewhat in agreement with Baker and other skeptics that UFO-abduction stories are difficult to accept, Thomas Bullard, folklorist at Indiana University, said that the abduction phenomenon is “an anomaly worth investigating.” He said that there is an unusually high degree of consistency in the abductees’ descriptions not only of the aliens (short, humanoid figures with large heads) but also of the sequence of events that occur during the alleged abductions. In a brief slide presentation, Bullard demonstrated that early representations of aliens varied considerably, while more recent images have had a high degree of consistency. He also disputed the claim, alluded to by Baker, that the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind provided the model for the alien figure. He said that, of the 103 cases in his study, more than half of the 43 that had been published prior to the release of that movie contained descriptions of short, humanoid figures. Bullard maintained that there are too many experiences that cannot be easily explained through standard methods and urged skeptics to examine and investigate these UFO claims. (During the question-and-answer period, however, Baker pointed out that the burden of proof is not on the skeptics, but on those who are making these extraordinary claims.)

John Mack

John Mack

John Mack, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, drew the most attention and curiosity from the audience. His recent book, Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens, in which he proclaims the belief that many of his patients actually have been abducted by aliens, has received extensive media coverage. Indeed, Mack is now the most visible spokesman for the abduction phenomenon. He maintains he was once intensely skeptical of such claims but now categorizes the UFO-abduction cases as “authentic mysteries.” He said he has considered other possible causes (i.e., sleep paralysis, nightmares), but the UFO-abduction cases have “a quality of their own.”

But Mack did not simply defend his position that, based on his anecdotal evidence, aliens have visited the planet. He also posed some questions regarding the polarization of skeptics and believers. Asking the audience to consider the question “What is the appropriate epistemology?” Mack said that this phenomenon may be inviting us to stretch our system of understanding realities. “Other cultures have always known that there were other realities, other beings, other dimensions. There is a world of other dimensions, of other realities that can cross over into our own world.” Which realities, beings, and dimensions, he did not say.

In closing, Mack asked why skeptics are so vehement in their attacks and wondered how they can have so much certainty. “Are we seeking to be the arbiters of reality?” he asked. CSICOP Chairman Paul Kurtz, moderator of the session, briefly responded that skeptics are simply practicing scientific methodology when they question UFO-abduction cases and other paranormal claims.

William Cone, a clinical psychologist from New-port Beach, California, said he found a great deal of the research being conducted to be "atrociously bad” and echoed the charge made earlier by Robert Baker that poorly trained researchers often impose their beliefs on patients. The patients themselves, in Cone’s experience, go public either to be paid by the media or to garner notoriety and attention from public appearances, or are simply looking for a sense of identity, wanting to belong somewhere. He said he has also diagnosed many of these people as mentally ill, paranoid, or delusional. Cone admitted he had found a subgroup of patients who do not fit his explanations, but he emphasized that “a remembrance of an event does not make the event so"—a point that would be reiterated throughout the conference.

On the recommendation of John Mack, Sharon Phillip, a hypnotherapist, spoke next. Since experiencing a UFO sighting as a teenager, Phillip said, she has had many UFO and alien encounters, once witnessing an alien materialize in a doorway. She maintains that what she encountered were not sleep-paralysis hallucinations, but conscious experiences, and urged the audience to keep an open mind in these matters.

Donna Bassett

Donna Bassett

To balance the proceedings, Donna Bassett, a researcher who had participated in John Mack’s recent study, was then called up to speak. At first Bassett seemed to indicate she was one of Mack’s “abductees.” But she quickly announced that since September 1992 she had been only posing as one in order to infiltrate Mack’s study and learn about his research methods. “I faked it,” Bassett said, “women have been doing it for centuries.” She reported that during her investigation she discovered that, despite Mack’s good intentions, his procedures were flawed — he used little or no scientific methodology. She said that during therapy sessions with Mack, many patients would often practice "overlay,” a term she said they invented to refer to their embellishing their stories. “They [the abductees] told John what he wanted to hear,” Bassett added. She said she felt that many of the patients were seeking attention. Although she believed Mack’s approach was wrong, she said that the subject nevertheless deserves study.

In response, Mack expressed his disappointment over what had just occurred. “I am saddened by this. . . . I am a little bit clearer about it when I am told that she (Bassett) was found to play this role by Philip Klass — since that’s his purpose, to destroy and undercut the credibility of this work.” Although one audience member commented that not informing Mack prior to the conference that Bassett would be speaking was ethically questionable (even though her story had already been covered in Time’s April 25 investigative report about Mack), another said that the fact that Mack had not discovered Donna Bassett as a fake called into question his whole methodology. Mack replied: “I'm not yet convinced one way or the other — whether she did in fact hoax or whether she has in fact had these experiences herself. I don't know.” After answering a few more questions (and restating the need for an "expanded epistemology”), Mack again implicated Klass in having a hand in Donna Bassett’s work.

At this time, Klass had heard enough and angrily approached the stage. Taking the microphone, he chastised Mack for making what he labeled "false innuendoes.” “Before you made accusations . . . why didn't you check with me? I could have told you that the first time I talked to Donna and her husband about you and your work was when they called me on January 9.” After a few more exchanges, Paul Kurtz intervened and brought the session to a conclusion.

Ending the session on a humorous note, Robert Baker jokingly proposed that CSICOP’s research should go in a new direction: “Sixty- nine percent of Americans believe in angels, and 32 percent claim they have had contact with them. Now that’s a lot better than for alien abductions. I think we ought to investigate angels.”

The Belief Engine: How World Views Are Formed

The session on perception and belief formation was introduced by moderator James Alcock, professor of psychology at Glendon College, York University. Alcock described sources of human perception and emphasized the ease with which our minds can make causal connections and patterns that may not exist. Our minds “take in information from the environment, combine it with aspects of memory, shape it to satisfy certain needs, and produce a belief that may or may not have anything to do with reality,” Alcock said. Contributing to this framework of belief creation is what he called “magical thinking.” As children, causal patterns are often incorrectly learned merely because one event is followed by another. Despite our expanding ability to operate with a critical perspective as we grow, fallacious beliefs that are functional and that, for example, aid our emotional survivability, can be sustained with this magical thinking, which Alcock said never completely leaves us. “We must always, to some degree, be suspicious of our own experience,” he concluded. “We must never take it as the arbiter of truth.”

Ray Hyman, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, reinforced Alcock’s comments with a demonstration that left many suspicious of their own experience. Hyman summoned two volunteers from the audience. He asked each to select a key and to bend it using only a stroking movement and a strong will. After a few minutes with no results from his volunteers, Hyman was seemingly able to bend a key with only the power of his mind, an accomplishment he said was due to the “Geller effect.” As a professor teaching classes in critical thinking, Hyman said he performs this trick for students to illustrate the undependable nature of eyewitness testimony. After producing a bent key, his students attempt to recall, in writing, what occurred during the demonstration, as well as to provide a possible theory to explain how the effect was achieved. What Hyman has consistently found over the years is that students will not report on the most crucial aspects of the trick simply because they do not know what to look for. In proposing theories, most offer natural explanations, such as switched keys, special key knowledge, or even enhanced finger strength. However, about one-quarter of his students contend that an authentic paranormal event has occurred. And only one student has ever correctly described Hyman’s method.

Andrew Neher, professor of psychology at Cabrillo College, in Aptos, California, surveyed the audience to measure the degree of belief and disbelief in the paranormal. In his three-question poll, Neher found that most in the audience did not believe in paranormal events, are confident of their position, and are comfortable believing that paranormal events do not exist. Neher, who questioned how so many could have such a high degree of comfort in their stated positions, was answered by one audience member: “I am no more uncomfortable with a disbelief or the assumption that God does not exist, than I am with Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or the tooth fairy. I don't find anything more interesting or more valid from one to the other.”

In discussing various motives for belief formation, Neher asserted that believers and skeptics often construct their views in similar ways. Each learns from families, friends, different organizations, and the society at large, and each tends to stereotype the other — sometimes members of their own group. Neher cautioned skeptics not to allow their biases and dispositions to prevent the scientific study of certain beliefs. “Science can direct its energies to determining what is helpful to believe, without necessarily only researching whether the belief is veridical.” Neher said that many who tend to reject science as elitist, irrelevant, or closed-minded have not been introduced to it as a process we all perform daily. “Science is not just something that scientists do somewhere else. All of us are scientists.”

Anthony Pratkanis, professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, spoke on “How to Sell a Pseudoscience.” He delineated methods of persuasion many use to promote and sell deceptive “products.” Subtly increasing steps of commitment, creating "credible” sources and leaders to end doubt, and establishing "granfalloons” ("in the know” groups of shared social identities) are but a few of the persuasive tactics used to gain a target’s trust. These methods often incorporate widely accepted, commonplace “truths” that can be used to embellish concepts or issues to create the desired submissive effect, Pratkanis said. And — as he himself experienced after publishing negative findings in subliminal-tape studies — to dispense with troublesome opponents to your cause, innuendo and character assassination are frequently used. Pratkanis called for careful understanding of these persuasion tactics.

An Illustrated History of UFOs

James McGaha, a retired Air Force pilot and an amateur astronomer, treated the audience to an interesting and often humorous history of UFOs. In an hour-long illustrated talk, McGaha chronicled the alleged UFO encounters, media influences, and government-conspiracy beliefs dating from the 1896 airship incidents up to the sinister abduction claims of the 1990s. He showed a wide range of bizarre UFO shapes and alien forms, explaining that “UFOs parallel popular culture, particularly science-fiction movies, books, magazines, and television shows.” McGaha demonstrated that just before each of the waves of UFO-sightings over the years, popular UFO stories were often prevalent in the entertainment media. In contrast to the view held by Thomas Bullard, a speaker on the previous evening, McGaha asserted that the evolution of alien images into a creature with a small body and a large, bulbous head is indeed a result of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. McGaha also referred to numerous alien encounters and supposed government cover-ups, including the 1947 Kenneth Arnold sighting, that he believes were simply mountaintop mirages, and the Roswell incident, in which a clerical error set in motion the amazing tales of an alien spacecraft and government secrets. The accusations that government agencies are concealing aliens and their vehicles as well as the belief that Air Force pilots are trained as UFO observers, he also dispelled as unfounded.

McGaha said we should not abandon our reasoning ability and scientific understanding of nature, despite the ever-increasing range of UFO beliefs in American culture. “Where is the evidence? There is no empirical evidence that UFOs have ever visited the planet, none — UFOlogy is clearly a belief system.”

Coverage of the 1994 CSICOP Conference will continue in the next issue.

Thomas G. Genoni Jr.

Tom Genoni is the CSICOP West Coast Bureau Chief at the Center for Inquiry—West in Los Angeles, California. He interviewed Art Bell by phone in March.