Understanding the Psychosocial Hypothesis. John Harney

From Magonia Supplement 30, August 2000

Many critics of the psychosocial hypothesis (PSH) seem to assume that it purports to explain all UFO reports, but this assumption is a serious error which leads to much needless (and meaningless) controversy.

The purpose of the PSH is to strip away the psychological and mythical elements from reports of alleged UFO incidents, so that the verifiable facts of any particular case can be laid bare. What starts as a puzzling sighting, or series of sightings, often accrues false interpretations drawn from the UFO myths which have developed since 1947. When such a sighting receives publicity it attracts hoaxers and fantasists who cause confusion and make it seem, to the credulous, far more mysterious than it really is.

The purpose of the PSH is not to attempt to show that unusual events do not really happen but, by separating fact from imagination and misinterpretation, to discover the truth about them. No complicated or controversial psychological theories need to be employed to do this; common sense is usually sufficient. It is important to realise that the PSH was developed in response to the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH). If the popular myth of visitations by alien spacecraft did not exist, it would have been taken for granted that UFO reports were generated by sightings of unusual aircraft or natural phenomena, and that the imperfections of human perception and memory could account for any strange details or inconsistencies in the reports. No one would seriously suggest UFO sightings as evidence of alien visitation unless there were compelling reasons for doing so. A good example of the difference between the ETH approach and the PSH approach is the Berwyn Mountain case. A few years ago, ETH proponents in Britain were putting about stories about this incident which can briefly be summarised as follows:

On the night of 23 January 1974 a UFO crashed in the Berwyn Mountains in North Wales. There were strange lights seen in the sky and a loud explosion was heard. A local nurse, fearing that there might have been a plane crash, set off up the mountain in her car, but was turned back by soldiers guarding the area, but not before she saw the grounded UFO glowing in the distance. Dead aliens from the saucer were taken by soldiers to Porton Down in Wiltshire. Local people were closely questioned by a team of mysterious strangers who moved into the area shortly after the incident. These and other amazing facts were discovered by intrepid ufologists, despite efforts by the authorities to conceal them. As Andy Roberts was to discover, the true facts were somewhat different. (1) Although the incident happened a long time ago there had been no serious investigation, apart from some ufologists talking to people who were, or who claimed to be, witnesses and putting an ETH spin on the stories they were told. Roberts discovered that the lights in the sky were caused by exceptionally bright bolides which were seen that evening. There were at least four of them. Records kept by astronomers at Leicester University showed that the timing of one of them coincided with an earth tremor, accompanied by a sound like an explosion, at 8.30 pm. This earth tremor was investigated by the British Geological Survey, which sent a team to the area to question local people about the event. This accounts for the story of the mysterious strangers.

The nurse did indeed go up the mountain but she did not encounter anyone there. The story about the military sealing off part of the mountain probably arose from the fact that witnesses were questioned many years after the incident and probably confused it with an incident in 1982 when an RAF Harrier jet crashed in the area and the crash site was sealed off until the wreckage was cleared up. The mysterious lights, thought to be a grounded UFO, turned out to be lamps powered by car batteries being used by poachers.

There was no independent corroboration of the story of the aliens being taken to Porton Down, and internal inconsistencies in the story added to its lack of credibility.

Of course, in unravelling this case, Andy Roberts did not explicitly employ the PSH, except to suggest that the affair was “a tangle of belief and wishful thinking”. The point I am making here is that ETH proponents who looked at the story tended to believe anything which confirmed their beliefs, and showed little interest in discovering the facts and critically analysing testimony to sort out reliable reporting from misinterpretation and fantasy.

Finally, it should be emphasised that the PSH does not purport to explain anything by itself. It is merely employed to consider how UFO reports are so easily fitted into a ready-made mythology. Much is said about the reliabilty or otherwise of witnesses, but the reliability of ufologists is more important. A devotion to the ETH inevitably leads to wishful thinking and a tendency to twist the facts to fit it. On the other hand, the PSH must not be confused with the extreme sceptical approach, which discards awkward facts in order to produce simple and satisfactorily mundane solutions to mysterious occurrences.


1. Roberts, Andy. “Fire on the Mountain”, in Jenny Randles, Andy Roberts and David Clarke, The UFOs That Never Were, London House, 2000


One thought on “Understanding the Psychosocial Hypothesis. John Harney

  1. The tendency of fringe researchers to “go around the bend”, seems to be real. Whether it is alternative energy, UFO sightings, abductions or exopolitics that is the subject, researchers sometimes lose perspective and critical thinking. Scientist Richard Hoagland and his “Enterprise Mission”, for example, starting from a rational premise, became increasingly “far out.” Why is that? Leading exopoliticians, for example, seem to have solid intellects and credentials, yet they are increasingly prone to make statements that are as fantastical as they are unsubstantiated. Something like groupthink may be at work, but the exact explanation still eludes me.

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