science of us

Believing in UFOs Is More Fun When You’re the Only One

Photo: Denis Scott/Getty Images

Last week, the New York Times published a bombshell: The Pentagon really does have a secret UFO program. There really are mysterious metal alloys shoved into storage somewhere in Las Vegas (not all that far, I’ll remind you, from Area 51). There are audio and video recording of sightings, taken by credible Navy pilots. For a self-appointed ufologist and longtime X-phile like me, this story has everything I’ve ever wanted and more. Until now, I’ve had to get my UFO news from sources like the Daily Mail, the MUFON newsletter, and former Blink-182 singer Tom DeLonge’s Twitter. This week, UFOs are mainstream news.

When I first saw the Times story (sent to me via three different platforms by three different friends), I was thrilled. Finally, here was validation for all those years in the conspiracy mines. But soon after, disappointment set in. I stopped feeling smug, and started feeling resentful, like a high-school junior who’s mad the seniors have discovered her favorite band. I liked UFOs before they were cool. My mixed feelings took me by surprise. Shouldn’t I want more people to care about my favorite thing? Shouldn’t I be happy the Truth is out in the open? Wasn’t it a bummer when I used to drop links to stories of UFO sightings in Slack with a thousand exclamation points, and nobody responded, and then someone changed the subject?

A new study in Social Psychology has some theories as to why I feel the way I do. The researchers, led by Anthony Lantian (a professor of psychology at the University Paris Nanterre), set out to examine the link between belief in conspiracy theories and the need for uniqueness (ouch). Because previous research has shown people with a need for uniqueness prefer rare commodities over common ones, the researchers hypothesized that the same need might play a role in driving one’s belief in unproven or little-substantiated entities like, say, aliens. In other words, what makes believing in a conspiracy feel special is the inherent fact that so few people do. If even the New York Times says UFOs are real, what fun is it to believe?

Hoping to find out I really was special and unique, I reached out to Roland Imhoff, a psychology professor at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany and the lead author of a similar study published last year. He told me that because conspiracies are seen by their adherents as a kind of privileged knowledge that only they, the very enlightened, can see, it feels better when the theory isn’t the official story. “If part of the fascination of conspiracy theories consists in displaying scarce knowledge, and insider information, it becomes dull if everyone has that knowledge,” he explains. Metal alloys stuck in a warehouse basement was an exciting idea when I read about it in self-published Roswell exposés, but when it’s in the paper of record it almost sounds like a bureaucratic red-tape issue. Maybe that’s why so many people seemed to file it away in their general brain bucket reserved for bad news about our government.

Seeing UFOs in the Times also makes them seem more real, and as it turns out, I’m not sure that’s not something I want. Whenever I got excited about a UFO sighting growing up, my dad always told me two things: (1) aliens aren’t real, and (2) if they are, it wouldn’t be good news for us.
Historically speaking, being “visited” by a foreign civilization has never gone well for the one that was there first, and there’s no reason to think extraterrestrials would be any different. Despite what Close Encounters of the Third Kind has to say on the subject, aliens probably wouldn’t just want music lessons. If UFOs are actually real, and one day they come for us, that will answer questions I didn’t really want answered. I thought I wanted legitimacy, but maybe I didn’t. I wanted superiority. I wanted to be special. But at least now I get to say: I told you so.

Believing in UFOs Is More Fun When You’re the Only One