Published in Skeptical Inquirer,
1998, 22, 23-28
Reproduced with permission
A Roper Poll claimed that nearly four million
Americans have had certain "indicator" experiences and therefore
had probably been abducted by aliens. But a study of 126 school children
and 224 undergraduates shows knowledge of aliens is related more to
watching television than to having the relevant experiences.
If you believe one set of claims, nearly four
million Americans have been abducted by aliens. This figure has been
widely publicized and is often assumed to mean that millions of people
have been visited by members of an alien species and, in some cases,
physically taken from their beds, cars or homes to an alien craft or
Personal accounts of abduction by aliens have
increased since the publication of Budd Hopkinss books Missing
Time (1981) and Intruders (1987) and Whitley Striebers
Communion (1987). There is considerable variation among the accounts,
but many fit a common pattern. Wright (1994) summarized 317 transcripts
of hypnosis sessions and interviews from 95 separate cases and concluded,
"Numerous entity types have been visiting our planet with some
regularity" (Part 2, p. 6). However, the "gray" is clearly
the most common alien and over the years a typical account has emerged
(see e.g. Mack, 1994, Schnabel, 1994, Thompson, 1993).
The experience begins most often when the person
is at home in bed (Wright, 1994) and most often at night (Spanos, Cross,
Dickson and DuBreuil, 1993); though sometimes abductions occur from
a car or outdoors. There is an intense blue or white light, a buzzing
or humming sound, anxiety or fear, and the sense of an unexplained presence.
A craft with flashing lights is seen and the person is transported or
"floated" into it. Once inside the craft, the person may be
subjected to various medical procedures, often involving the removal
of eggs or sperm and the implantation of a small object in the nose
or elsewhere. Communication with the aliens is usually by telepathy.
The abductee feels helpless and is often restrained, or partially or
The "gray" which is about four feet
high, with a slender body and neck, a large head, and huge, black, slanted,
almond shaped eyes. Grays usually have no hair, and often only three
fingers on each hand. Rarer aliens include green or blue types, the
taller fair-haired Nordics and human types who are sometimes seen working
with the grays.
The aliens purpose in abducting Earthlings
varies from benign warnings of impending ecological catastrophe to a
vast alien breeding program, necessitating the removal of eggs and sperm
from humans in order to produce half-alien, half-human creatures. Some
abductees claim to have seen fetuses in special jars, and some claim
they were made to play with or care for the half-human children.
Occasionally people claim to be snatched from
public places, with witnesses, or even in groups. This provides the
potential for independent corroboration, but physical evidence is extremely
rare. A few examples of stained clothing have been brought back; and
some of the implants have reportedly been removed from abductees
bodies, but they usually mysteriously disappear (Jacobs, 1993).
How can we explain these experiences? Some
abductees recall their experiences spontaneously, but some only "remember"
in therapy, support groups or under hypnosis. We know that memories
can be changed and even completely created with hypnosis (Laurence,
et al. 1986), peer pressure, and repeated questionning (Loftus, 1993).
Are "memories" of abduction created this way? Most of Wrights
ninety-five abductees were hypnotized and/or interviewed many times.
Hopkins is well known for his hypnotic techniques for eliciting abduction
reports, and Mack also uses hypnosis. However, there are many reports
of conscious recall of abduction without hypnosis or multiple interviews,
and the significance of the role of false memory is still not clear.
Another theory is that abductees are mentally
ill. This receives little or no support from the literature. Bloecher,
Clamar and Hopkins (1985) found above-average intelligence and no signs
of serious pathology among nine abductees, and Parnell (1988) found
no evidence of psychopathology among 225 individuals who reported having
seen a UFO (although not having been abducted). Most recently Spanos
et al (1993) compared forty-nine UFO reporters with two control groups
and found they were no less intelligent, no more fantasy prone, and
no more hypnotizable than the controls. Nor did they show more signs
of psychopathology. They did, however, believe more strongly in alien
visitations, suggesting that such beliefs allow people to shape ambiguous
information, diffuse physical sensations, and vivid imaginings into
realistic alien encounters.
Temporal lobe lability has also been implicated.
People with relatively labile temporal lobes are more prone to fantasy,
and more likely to report mystical and out-of-body experiences, visions,
and psychic experiences (Persinger and Makarec 1987). However, Spanos
et al. found no difference in a temporal lobe lability scale between
their UFO reporters and control groups. Cox (1995) compared a group
of twelve British abductees with both a matched control group and a
student control group and, again, found no differences on the temporal
lobe lability scale. Like Spanoss subjects, the abductees were
more often believers in alien visitations than were the controls.
A final theory is that abductions are elaborations
of sleep paralysis, in which a person is apparently able to hear and
see and feels perfectly awake, but cannot move. The International
Classification of Sleep Disorders (Thorpy, 1990) reports that sleep
paralysis is common among narcoleptics, in whom the paralysis usually
occurs at sleep onset; is frequent in about 3 to 6 percent of the rest
of the population; and occurs occasionally as "isolated sleep paralysis"
in 40 to 50 percent. Other estimates for the incidence of isolated sleep
paralysis include those from Japan (40 percent; Fukuda, et al. 1987),
Nigeria (44 percent; Ohaeri, 1992), Hong Kong (37 percent, Wing, Lee
& Chen, 1994), Canada (21 percent; Spanos et al. 1995), Newfoundland
(62 percent; Ness, 1978) and England (46 percent; Rose & Blackmore,
The Sleep-Paralysis Experience
In a typical sleep-paralysis episode, a person
wakes up paralyzed, senses a presence in the room, feels fear or even
terror, and may hear buzzing and humming noises, or see strange lights.
A visible or invisible entity may even sit on their chest, shaking,
strangling or prodding them. Attempts to fight the paralysis are usually
unsuccessful. It is reputedly more effective to relax, or try to move
just the eyes or a single finger or toe. Descriptions of sleep paralysis
are given in many of the references already cited and in Huffords
(1982) classic work on the "Old Hag". I and a colleague are
building up a case collection and have reported our preliminary findings
(Blackmore and Rose, 1996).
Sleep paralysis is thought to underlie common
myths such as witch or hag riding in England (Davis, 1996-1997), the
Old Hag of Newfoundland (Hufford, 1982), Kanashibari in Japan (Fukuda,
1993), Kokma in St Lucia (Dahlitz and Parkes, 1993) and the Popobawa
in Zanzibar (Nickell, 1995) among others. Perhaps alien abduction is
our modern sleep paralysis myth.
Spanos et al. (1993) have pointed out the similarities
between abductions and sleep paralysis. The majority of the abduction
experiences they studied occurred at night, and almost 60 percent of
the "intense" reports were sleep related. Of the intense experiences,
nearly a quarter involved symptoms similar to sleep paralysis.
Cox (1995) divided his twelve abductees into
six daytime and six nighttime abductions and, even with such small groups,
found that the nighttime abductees reported significantly more frequent
sleep paralysis than either of the control groups.
I suggest that the best explanation for many
abduction experiences is that they are elaborations of the experience
of sleep paralysis.
Imagine the following scenario: a woman wakes
in the night with a strong sense that someone or something is in the
room. She tries to move and finds she is completely paralyzed except
for her eyes. She sees strange lights, hears a buzzing or humming sound,
and feels a vibration in the bed. If she knows about sleep paralysis,
she will recognise it instantly, but most people do not. So what is
she going to think? I suggest that, if she has watched TV programs about
abductions or read about them, she may begin to think of aliens. And
in this borderline sleep state, the imagined alien will seem extremely
real. This alone may be enough to create the conviction of having been
abducted. Hypnosis could make the memories of this real experience (but
not real abduction) completely convincing.
The Roper Poll
The claim that 3.7 million Americans have been
abducted was based on a Roper Poll conducted between July and September
1991 and published in 1992. The authors were Budd Hopkins, a painter
and sculptor, David Jacobs, a historian, and Ron Westrum, a sociologist
(Hopkins, Jacobs, and Westrum 1992). In its introduction John Mack,
Professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, claimed that hundreds
of thousands of American men, women and children may have experienced
UFO abductions and that many of them suffered from distress when mental
health professionals tried to fit their experiences into familiar psychiatric
categories. Clinicians, he said, should learn, "to recognise the
most common symptoms and indications in the patient or clients
history that they are dealing with an abduction case" (p 8). These
indications included seeing lights, waking up paralyzed with a sense
of presence, and experiences of flying and missing time. The report
was published privately and mailed to nearly one hundred thousand psychiatrists,
psychologists and other mental health professionals encouraging them
to "be open to the possibility that something exists or is happening
to their clients which, in our traditional Western framework, cannot
or should not be." (p 8).
The Roper Organization provides a service for
other questions to be tacked on to their own regular polls. In this
case 5,947 adults (a representative sample) were given a card listing
eleven experiences and were asked to say whether each had happened to
them more than twice, once or twice, or never. The experiences (and
percentage of respondents reporting having had the experience at least
once) included: seeing a ghost (11 percent), seeing and dreaming about
UFOs (7 percent and 5 percent), and leaving the body (14 percent). Most
important were the five "indicator experiences": 1) "Waking
up paralyzed with a sense of a strange person or presence or something
else in the room" (18 percent), 2) "Feeling that you were
actually flying through the air although you didnt know why or
how" (10 percent), 3) "Experiencing a period of time of an
hour or more, in which you were apparently lost, but you could not remember
why, or where you had been" (13 percent), 4) "Seeing unusual
lights or balls of light in a room without knowing what was causing
them, or where they came from" (8 percent), and 5) "Finding
puzzling scars on your body and neither you nor anyone else remembering
how you received them or where you got them." (8 percent).
The authors decided that "when a respondent
answers yes to at least four of these five indicator questions,
there is a strong possibility that individual is a UFO abductee."
The only justification given is that Hopkins and Jacobs worked with
nearly five hundred abductees over a period of seventeen years. They
noticed that many of their abductees reported these experiences and
jumped to the conclusion that people who have four or more of the experiences
are likely to be abductees.
From there, the stunning conclusion of the
Roper Poll was reached. Out of the 5,947 people interviewed, 119 (or
2 percent) had four or five of the indicators. Since the population
represented by the sample is 185 million, the total number is 3.7 million
- hence the conclusion that nearly four million Americans have been
abducted by aliens.
Why did they not simply ask a question like
"Have you ever been abducted by aliens?". They argue that
this would not reveal the true extent of abduction experiences since
many people only remember them after therapy or hypnosis. If abductions
really occur, this argument may be valid. However, the strategy used
in the Roper Poll does not solve the problem.
With some exceptions, many scientists have
chosen to ignore the Poll because it is so obviously flawed. However,
because its major claim has received such wide publicity, I decided
a little further investigation was worthwhile.
Real Abductions or Sleep Paralysis?
The real issue raised by the Roper Poll is
whether the 119 people who reported the indicator experiences had actually
been abducted by aliens.
Since the sampling technique appears to be
sound and the sample large, we can have confidence in the estimate of
2 percent claiming the experiences. The question is - have these people
really been abducted? The alternative is that they simply have had a
number of interesting psychological experiences, the most obviously
relevant being sleep paralysis. In this case the main claim of the Roper
Poll must be rejected. How do we find out?
I reasoned that people who have been abducted
(whether they consciously recall it or not) should have a better knowledge
of the appearance and behavior of aliens than people who have not. This
leads to two simple hypotheses.
The Roper Poll assumes that people who have
had the indicator experiences have probably been abducted. If this assumption
is correct, people who report the indicator experiences should have
a better knowledge of what aliens are supposed to look like and what
happens during an abduction than people who do not report indicator
experiences. If the assumption is not correct, then their knowledge
should be no greater than anyone elses - indeed, knowledge of
aliens should relate more closely to reading and television-watching
habits than to having the indicator experiences if abductions do not
I decided to test this using both adults and
children here in Bristol. It might be argued that genuine abductees
wouldnt be able to remember the relevant details so I needed to
use a situation that would encourage recall. I decided to relax the
subjects and tell them an abduction story, and then ask them to fill
in missing details and draw the aliens they had seen in their imagination.
Subjects were 126 school children aged 8-13
and 224 first year undergraduates aged 18 and over. The children came
from two schools in Bristol. They were tested in their classrooms in
groups of 22 to 28. The first group of 22 children had a slightly different
questionnaire from the others and, is therefore, excluded from some
of the analyses. The adults were psychology and physiotherapy students
at the University of the West of England tested in three large groups.
The procedure for the children is described below. The procedure was
slightly simplified and the story slightly modified for the adults.
I first spent about half an hour talking to
the children about psychology and research so that they got used to
me. I then asked them to relax - as much as they could in the classroom.
Many laid their heads on the desks, some even lay down on the floor.
I asked them to imagine they were in bed and being read a bedtime story.
I suggested they tried to visualize all the details of the story in
their minds while I read it to them. I then read, slowly and clearly,
a story called "Jackie and the Aliens", in which a girl is
visited in bed at night by a strange alien who takes her into a space
craft, examines her on a table, and brings her back unharmed to bed.
The story includes such features as travelling down a corridor into
a room, being laid on a table, seeing alien writing and catching a glimpse
of jars on shelves. However, precise details are not given.
At the end of the story I asked the children
to "wake up" slowly and to try to remember as much as they
could of the details of the story. I then handed out the questionnaires.
Each questionnaire contained five multiple-choice questions about the
alien, the room, and table; and the children were asked to describe
what was in the jars and to draw the alien writing. There were also
six questions based on those in the Roper Poll: Have you ever seen a
UFO? Have you ever seen a ghost? Have you ever felt as though you left
your body and could fly around without it (an out-of-body experience,
or OBE)? Have you ever seen unusual lights or balls of light in a room
without knowing what was causing them, or where they came from? Have
you ever woken up paralyzed, that is, with the feeling that you could
not move? And, Have you ever woken up with the sense that there was
a strange person or presence or something else in the room? (Note that
in the Roper Poll, the question about paralysis was compounded with
the question of the sense of presence. Here, two separate questions
were asked. Note also that the last four of these questions were based
on the indicator questions from the Roper Poll.) The questions
were slightly altered to make them suitable for young children, and
I did not ask about scars or missing time. A question about false awakenings
(dreaming you have woken up) was also included, and two questions about
Finally, all groups except one of the adult
groups were asked to draw pictures of the alien they had imagined in
Large numbers of both adults and children reported most of the experiences.
The percentages are shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Results of two surveys, with percentage of people
answering "Yes" for having had the experience indicated. See
text for full wording of questions.
For each person an "alien score"
from 0 to 6 was given for the number of "correct" answers
to the questions about the alien (that is, answers that conformed to
the popular stereotype), and another score for the number of Roper Poll
indicator experiences reported (0-4).
For the children, the mean alien score was
0.95, and the mean number of experiences 1.51. There was no correlation
between the two measures (rs = - 0.03, n = 101,
p = 0.78). The drawings of aliens were roughly categorized by an independent
judge into "grays" and "others" (for almost all
drawings the category is obvious. See Figure 1). Twelve (12 percent)
of the children drew grays and 87 did not. Not surprisingly, those who
drew a gray also achieved higher alien scores (t = 3.87, 97 df, p<0.0001)
but they did not report more of the experiences (t = 0.66, 95 df, p
Those children who drew grays did not report
watching more television. Nor was there a correlation between the amount
of television watched and the alien score (rs = 0.002, n
= 101, p = 0.98). Oddly there was a small positive correlation between
the amount of television watched and the number of experiences reported
(rs = 0.25, n = 101, p = 0.01).
For the adults, mean alien score was 1.23 and
mean number of experiences 1.64. Again there was no correlation between
the two measures (rs = 0.07, n = 213, p = 0.29).
Seventeen of the adults drew grays, and 103 did not. Again those who
drew a gray achieved higher alien scores (t = 6.11, 118 df, p<0.001)
but did not report more experiences (t = 0.14, 115 df, p = 0.89).
Among the adults, those who drew grays were
those who watched more television (U = 534, n = 100, 17, p = 0.01),
and the amount of television watched correlated positively with the
alien score (rs = 0.20, n = 217, p = 0.003).
These results provide no evidence that people
who reported more of the indicator experiences had a better idea of
what an alien should look like or what should happen during an abduction.
If real gray aliens are abducting people from Earth, and the Roper Poll
is correct in associating the indicator experiences with abduction,
then we should expect such a relationship. Its absence in a relatively
large sample casts doubt on these premises.
Among the adults (though not the children)
there was a correlation between the amount of television they watched
and their knowledge about aliens and abductions. This suggests that
the popular stereotype is obtained more from television programs than
from having been abducted by real aliens.
Our sample certainly included enough people
who reported the indicator experiences. Although not all the indicator
experiences were included, for the four questions that were used the
incidence is actually higher than that found by the Roper Poll. Presumably,
therefore, many of my subjects would have been classified by Hopkins,
Jacobs and Westrum as having been abducted. The results suggest that
this conclusion would be quite unjustified.
These findings do not and cannot prove that
no real abductions are occurring on this planet. What they do show is
that knowledge of the appearance and behaviour of abducting aliens depends
more on how much television a person watches than on how many "indicator
experiences" he or she has had. I conclude that the claim of the
Roper Poll, that 3.7 million Americans have probably been abducted,
I would like to thank the Perrott-Warrick Fund
for financial assistance and Nick Rose for help with the analysis.
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Examples of a "gray" and several
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