On June 25, the Department of Defense released an official report on Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs). The report does not tell us much of anything, except that these objects remain unidentified. Nevertheless, for the department to officially acknowledge that we cannot explain what these objects are or how they move breaks a long-running taboo on taking UFOs seriously.
The full document includes a classified section for lawmakers. Until now, the department had previously released footage, taken by military pilots, of several of the sightings — which former senator Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in April “only scratches the surface of research and materials available.”
Reid’s comments lent legitimacy to a persistent American conspiracy theory: that the federal government is concealing evidence of extraterrestrial activity on Earth. Conspiracy thinking and misinformation are thought to be increasing, especially since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
What encourages Americans to dive into conspiracy thinking?
Obviously, many factors are involved. But new official openness about UFOs’ existence — and to the possibility that they might be extraterrestrial visitors — encourages people to see conspiracy theorists more favorably, my research finds.
When evidence emerges that’s consistent with a conspiracy theory
Respected public figures have been acknowledging that pilots and others have spotted flying objects that they can’t identify — which is the literal definition of a UFO. Speaking about these objects with James Corden on the Late Late Show, former president Barack Obama said, “there is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don't know exactly what they are.”
Other politicians — not just Democrats — have wanted to investigate these objects. In 2020, President Donald Trump signed a law that required the Pentagon to produce an unclassified report for Congress revealing what the government knows about UFOs. While none of this confirms the conspiracy theory that the government has been hiding evidence that extraterrestrial life has visited Earth, it does acknowledge that the government has investigated unidentified flying objects — which at least some Americans interpret as evidence of alien visitations.
How did this revelation of government information affect Americans’ opinions of those who hold other fringe beliefs?
Official legitimization causes people to feel more positive toward people who believe in conspiracy theories
On June 1, The Washington Post published an article headlined, “Close Encounters: Democrats and Republicans unified in taking UFOs seriously.” The story mentioned well-known Democratic and Republican politicians and a former CIA director acknowledging that UFOs might indeed be extraterrestrial visitors.
The next day, I recruited over 1,500 Americans to take a survey in which I embedded an experiment. Respondents were recruited through Lucid, an online panel provider that compensates individuals who agree to complete such surveys. One-third were randomly assigned to read an excerpt from The Post article that mentioned bipartisan interest in UFOs. The other two-thirds received no information. Then everyone answered questions about their feelings toward people who believe in conspiracies.
In one question, respondents were asked how they felt about conspiracy theorists, rating that on what social scientists call a “feeling thermometer,” from 0 (very negative) to 100 (very positive). On average, those who read the article reported about 6 percent more positive feelings toward people who believe in conspiracy theories than those who did not read, increasing from roughly 42 to 48.
To put that effect in context, The Post story causes people to feel about as positive toward those who believe in conspiracy theories as identification as a Democrat leads to negative feelings toward that group. Compared to independents, Democrats report 8 points more negative feelings toward people who believe in conspiracies, an effect similar in size to the 6-point difference caused by reading the article.
The next day, after 98 percent of participants completed the survey, the New York Times revealed the report’s findings, which had been leaked. The following morning, I recontacted everyone who had already taken the previous survey, and showed them that morning’s Washington Post article titled, “Report does not confirm, or rule out, UFOs in unexplained aerial events.”
Results were consistent with those from the first survey. Of the 304 people who responded and had not read about UFOs during the first found, the median “feeling thermometer” rating toward conspiracy theorists increased from 27 in the first survey to 36 after reading The Post article about the report.
New public discussion of long taboo issues may increase openness to conspiracy thinking
Scientific investigations must be open to all possibilities. In a healthy democracy, political leaders are willing to be open about discussing and investigating available evidence. However, this new willingness to assess possibilities that had been dismissed as fringe ideas may have a cost.
Previous work finds that people avoid expressing support for conspiracies for fear of social consequences. My findings suggest that when politicians bring a formerly taboo possibility into open public discussion, they may increase favorable attitudes toward conspiracy thinking on other issues. To prevent this later effect, politicians may wish to avoid presenting uncertain facts as settled issues when the evidence needed to support that judgment just isn’t there.