- Basic principles of social psychology are likely to exacerbate the recent tensions between the U.S and China over reports of a "spy balloon."
- There is a long history of political tensions over the threat posed by aerial technology culminating in mass sightings of imaginary objects.
- Human perception is unreliable. For example, when looking at a star at night, people may perceive movement due to the lack of visual context.
If history is a guide, the publicity surrounding the recent shooting down of a Chinese ‘spy balloon’ over the United States is an ideal set-up for an impending outbreak of UFO sightings. The United States has a long history of similar scares. The pattern in these episodes is eerily similar beginning with an initial incident that receives saturated media coverage. Soon, large numbers of people begin to scrutinize the skies and begin seeing the object of their fears. These outbreaks are driven by known psychological processes and can be summed up in the old adage, "Speak of the Devil and he is bound to appear."
One of the most challenging aspects of studying social panics is that researchers are almost always investigating these cases after the fact — months or years later. They are notoriously difficult to predict. However, based on the long history of UFO scares, there is a good chance that in the coming months there will be an outbreak of mysterious aerial objects attributed to the Chinese. This episode has all of the ingredients of a social panic in the making: a foreign adversary, political tension and mistrust, intense publicity, and a jittery public. Combined with the unreliability of human perception, it may just be a matter of time before we experience a wave of sightings.
Throughout history, societies have been caught up in exaggerated fears over the threat that is believed to be posed by sinister forces that threaten the social order. While there is often a grain of truth driving these scares, it is exaggerated. Sociologists refer to these episodes as moral panics. Historical examples include periods of intense fear involving Jews, communists, heretics, deviants, and the poor. More recent examples include the perceived threat from Satanic cults, Muslims, teens using the internet, and the dangers posed by video games.
I have been researching these scares for over four decades and conducted several studies involving aerial objects. Just before the outbreak of World War I, there were mass sightings of German Zeppelins in the skies in many Commonwealth countries that corresponded to the known positions of stars and planets that were misperceived as a menacing technology. One key driver of these scares is the fallibility of human perception which is notoriously unreliable and subject to error. Another is the autokinetic effect which was famously demonstrated by psychologist Muzafer Sherif in the 1930s. People are susceptible to this effect at night while staring at the sky. Sherif found that when people stare at a pinpoint of light in a dark environment, the light will appear to move, often a great deal. This is because there is a lack of visual context as a frame of reference. As a result, stars and planets are often mistaken for "flying saucers."
A similar sighting flap occurred in British South Africa just prior to the war when there were sightings of German monoplanes from adjacent German South-West Africa. Records show that the Germans had only three planes and none could perform the sophisticated maneuvers that were described, as well as staying aloft for hours, and traveling long distances without refueling. Nocturnal flight was treacherous at the time. It was later learned that two of the three planes were disabled during this period, while the third was of little practical use.
In Sweden after World War II, there were widespread sightings of ghost rockets that were believed to have been fired by the Soviets who were occupying Peenemunde, Germany’s former center of rocket technology. This gave rise to rumors that the observations were of German V-rockets test-fired in an effort to intimidate the Swedes. An investigation by Swedish defense officials found that of nearly 1,000 sightings and several “crash” reports, there was no evidence that rockets were over-flying Sweden and they attributed most sightings to either meteorological or astronomical causes.
In 1947, a wave of "flying saucer" sightings swept across the United States as people began to interpret an array of ambiguous, mostly nocturnal aerial stimuli as a foreign or domestic weapon. A Gallup Poll at the time found that many respondents believed they were American or Russian weapons, while less than 1% thought they were "alien visitors."
As with other social panics, timing is everything. With tensions over the war in Ukraine, the close relationship between China and Russia, and fears over a possible Sino invasion of Taiwan, anxieties between the U.S. and China are sky-high. One of the great challenges of studying human beings is their unpredictability. But if history is a guide, there is a good chance we are about the see the Chinese scare played out above us as the skies become a Rorschach ink blot that will serve as a social barometer of the times.
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