Unraveling Top UFO Theories


UFO experiences generally come in two flavors: Witnessing Unusual Crafts and Encountering Unusual Beings. The vast majority of UFO sightings reported in national databases are unusual but lacking in details. Out of all of these reports there are a few that are fantastical and describe objects like saucers, jellyfish, or tictaks that if true few people would say are mundane objects mistaken for exotic crafts. In rare cases, these sightings will have physical evidence available to support the claims however this evidence can be hard to interpret or trust and sometimes gets lost.

Parallel to these reports of far away craft being sighted are much more personal accounts of people encountering alien beings as part of a sighting or as part of an alien abduction sequence that includes being physically transported to an alien craft. Oftentimes, the people who report these abduction experiences appear to otherwise be in sound mental health and yet relate stories that seem unhinged.

It would be easy to dismiss these stories. Most are just anecdotes. However, the sheer amount of stories are hard to ignore and the credibility of most experiences is hard to dispute completely. And the story doesn't go away. Every few years we will hear UFO stories that are hard to ignore. Furthermore, less spectacular UFO stories are reported weekly to national reporting organizations.

Something more than just people telling ghost stories seems to be happening. But what? Below are the leading theories about what people think is happening with UFOs. Let's take a look at these and do some analysis.

Alien Hypothesis

The Alien Hypothesis proposes that alien beings exist alongside us and are extraterrestrial, interdimensional, time travelers, divine, or cryptoterrestrial in origin. These beings would be considered alien because they fall so far outside normal experience but that does not necessarily mean that these being must originate from another world.

Key aspects of this theory are that these beings are real physical beings, they appear humanoid, they are intelligent, and they don't fit neatly fit into today's cultural narrative.

This is what most people think of when they hear the word UFO. And with good reason, many experiencers (as the're called) attribute sightings and encounters with extraterrestrial aliens. Some people even claim that the beings themselves told them they were from off-world. However, variations of this theory will claim different origins including ourselves from the future.

Psychosocial Hypothesis

The Psychosocial UFO hypothesis argues that at least some UFO reports are best explained by psychological or social means (Wikipedia, 2024). The basis of this hypothesis rests on the idea that most UFO experiences originate from mundane explanations such as airplanes, balloons, or otherwise misidentified objects. People have certain experiences but will interpret them using culturally significant symbols such as flying saucers, aliens, and religious figures.

Key aspects of the Psychosocial Hypothesis are that the originating events are mundane in nature, evoke mythic dream-like imagery, and create an urban legend around the experience.

On it's face, this theory seems to be simply a skeptical debunking. However, there are people who are interested in the psychological and social origins and impacts because that is an interesting problem regardless. The intent here is not to debunk but to frame UFOs in the same way an academic might frame religion. They study this without spending time on the reality of UFOs per say.

Transpersonal Hypothesis

The Transpersonal hypothesis makes a link between altered states of consciousness caused my mediation, drugs, dreams, or other practices and the presence of non-human intelligences and realities. In many ways, the nuts of bolts of the transpersonal hypothesis are the same as the psychosocial hypothesis with the difference being that the transpersonal version does not require a mundane event.

Synchronicity and other ideas that invoke a collective unconscious or experiences that come out of psychedelic drug use fall into this category. One notable variation of this theme is Jacques Vallée's Control System Theory that states that UFOs and related phenomena are not necessarily extraterrestrial in origin but are manifestations of an intelligent control system manipulating human consciousness.

Key aspects of the Transpersonal Hypothesis are that the originating events are exotic in nature, evoke mythic dream-like imagery, and create a spiritual or otherwise culturally significant narrative around the event.

In practice, the transpersonal and psychosocial theories are the same with the exception of the question of the reality of the phenonom itself. In a way, this is about how much weight an investigator will put into personal subjective experience versus physical nuts and bolts evidence.

Psyop Hypothesis

The Psyop Hypothesis states that UFO reports are a result of a government's or some other powerful entity's program to influence the general public in some way. This could be to simply hide secret weapons programs or military activity, undermine faith in national institutions, or to even hide a real program to study UFOs.

The key aspects of this theory revolve around trust in institutions and the information they protect or produce and the feeling that the real story behind major cultural realities are being hidden from most people.

This one is complicated because we know for a fact that governments and other large scale entities do keep secrets and for reasons far less interesting that UFOs. We also know these same organizations will attempt to influence people, communicate mis-information, and otherwise lie openly. And if they had a UFO that is what we would assume they would do.

However, this doesn't prove that they do have more information about UFOs than they do nor does it reassure us that a psyop is underway. In recent years especially, we have been getting conflicting reports from the US government about UFOs so any study of UFOs will need to take this into account.

Hoax Hypothesis

Hoax or Misidentification Skeptics argue that many UFO sightings can be explained by hoaxes, misidentification of mundane objects or phenomena (such as aircraft, weather balloons, or astronomical events), or psychological factors like hallucinations or mass hysteria.

We know that there have been deliberate hoaxes in the past and that it's easy for even trained observers to misinterpret things they see in the sky. And we have plenty of cases of people presenting artifacts that turn out to have earthly origins. Furthermore, UFOlogy is a one billion dollar a year entertainment industry that has created endless History Channel episodes, movies, and conferences. It's safe to say that at least a portion of UFO cases are simply fraudulent, errors, or hysteria.

The key aspects of the Hoax Hypothesis are that the phenomenon is based on mundane events or deliberate bad actors, and that the narratives are driven by mass hysteria and attention seeking behavior.

This hypothesis is both the least interesting and most likely. It's not possible to personally investigate every UFO case and information even for known cases is scarce. Not everyone has the technical ability to truly debunk a case or be satisfied that the case is real.

My Analysis

As an analyst, I feel that I need to start off by saying that none of these are really good hypothesis. That is, they are are not statements that we can clearly disprove with evidence. Furthermore, the reality could be some combination of all of these. However, I do feel like these provide some kind of lens in which to view the phenomenon.

For most of my life, I've been drawn to the transpersonal hypothesis. My belief has been that some people are wired in such a way that they have access to information that most of us do not and that information is hard to interpret verbally and is therefore communicated in the language of mythology. UFOs are a mythology in the same way religious stories or other legends are mythology. I didn't believe in the nuts and bolts experiences, however I believed that they pointed to deeper truths that seem strange because they are hard to express.

This is the view that Carl Jung expressed in his work Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky (1958). Jung was an early influence on me so it's not surprising that I gravitate towards this view. Jacques Vallée in his many works highlights folklore and religious imagery as precursors to modern UFO stories; if you read the Bible with the idea of looking for UFO stories you will find plenty of stories that could be mistaken for UFO reports.

However, even Jung in his book about Flying Saucers was confused about the nature of UFOs and wrote,

The primary question—and apparently this is the most important point—is this: are they real or are they mere fantasy products? (Jung, 1958)

Jung's book is remarkable in that it seems like he wants to use UFOs as a metaphor in his analysis of dreams but he keeps coming back to that fundamental question: Are they real?

That is the question that I have now as well, and so I've moved on from this hypothesis myself. For one thing, the stories we have of UFOs while strange don't always follow the pattern of mythological stories. Most are borderline nonsensical and many are simply ambiguous experiences that people struggle to incorporate into a story.

It's hard to start to form a theory when there is so much noise in the UFOlogy world. We don't know what stories are real and which ones are significant. Most stories do not come with evidence other than anecdotal reports. However, I do believe that we can make some broad statements:

  • Large numbers of people report seeing technological crafts that appear to be intelligently controlled and behave in ways that do not seem possible with today's technology.

  • Some people report encounters with unusual and powerful beings that are able to control them and take them aboard crafts were procedures are performed. This types of reports can be in conjunction with a physical sighting of craft or it can happen in other settings like a bedroom at night.

  • Government agencies occasionally get involved in attempting to explain these events and can sometimes appear suspicious or evasive.

  • Sometimes experiencers report related phenomenon after encountering UFOs or beings the most famous being the Men in Black.

  • Evidence is rare, highly disputable, low quality, and seems to go missing or become "classified" or just kept secret. Photographs exist but are never conclusive. Radar and other evidence from aviation is hard to interpret.

In many ways, the psycho-social hypothesis seems like a good starting point. This viewpoint is not that far from the transpersonal hypothesis with the same difference being in how real the actual experience itself is. The fact that evidence is lacking and yet there are significant social impacts such as news coverage of UFO flaps, the UFOlogy community, New Age cults, distrust of institutions (government conspiracy theories), and related phenomenon such as the Men in Black kinda points me in that direction.

However, this does not address the point that Jung brings up. Are they real though? This question steers us to the Alien Hypothesis. Perhaps these are advanced technology crafts in the real nuts and bolts sense. This is hard to accept though because even though we have an overwhelming amount of UFO reports we have an underwhelming amount of convincing physical evidence. Even though many report seeing UFOs close up and they report that the UFOs leave physical traces the evidence has never been considered conclusive.

There is a caveat, it could be that an advanced alien presence would have ways to prevent us from gathering information about them. Or perhaps there are powerful human interests who are capable of concealing the nature of these experiences. Are there real Men in Black?

As a normal person with limited access to good data and who has not seen any UFOs himself, it's hard to really accept this theory. But I certainly cannot rule it out, or some version of it.

The Psyop Hypothesis is interesting to consider but like the Hoax Hypothesis we know there are instances of psyops around UFOs like they there have been hoaxes. While I don't have the references on hand I've read that both the US and Russia used UFO stories to cover up things like nuclear testing in the past. However, some people take this idea and really expand it into a broad systematic program to someone influence the public.

The biggest problem I have with this theory is that I don't see the point to a psyop. It's not clear what story is being pushed here. Unless it is part of a larger action to discredit our national institutions. But it just seems like a really circuitous way to get to that outcome. Still it could be part of a program to conceal something about UFOs that are real.

What is more concerning to me about the Psyop Theory is the reality that we live in an information environment full of disinformation, misinformation, and noise. It could easily be that what we read about in the UFO topic is corrupted by people who have some kind of agenda. It could be a benign agenda (I want to sell UFO books!) or it could be more insidious. But, it's very nature makes inspecting the evidence suspect.

That leads me to the Hoax Hypothesis and this one is tough. We know for a fact that some reports are hoaxes and probably more are basically misidentification. Debunkers seem to assume that all reports are either hoaxes, misidentification, or simply low in information. Generally the verbal reports themselves are dismissed entirely.

This one is hard because you can say for sure that it's partially true but you can't say that it's entirely true. It's hard to dispute that the experiencers are all hoaxers. Most have kept to their stories for years or are simply otherwise normal people.

So, where does this leave us? Personally, I don't seen much value in chasing the Hoax Hypothesis. I'll leave that to the debunkers, I think that keeping a healthy skepticism is appropriate especially for individual cases but as a world view it's not super helpful. The Transpersonal and Psycho-social theories are most interesting but they also miss the essential concern. Are these things real or not? So it comes down to the Alien and the Psyop.

The nuts and bolts reality of UFOs needs to be established and that should be concern number one. The Psyop angle comes in because there is a possibility that the answers are already known and just concealed from us. So we have two approaches: the first is scientific and is about how to identify what UFOs are and how to distinguish something that is a non-human or alien origination that is outside the natural world. The second question is more investigative journalists and that is: what do they know and when did they find out?

Before I wrap up, I do want to point out that many accounts I've read of will be careful about deciding what the experience was. This is especially true if you look up cases in the national databases. However, most experiencers who had a significant encounter (more than just lights in the sky) will say that the experience represented something "alien" or otherwise "not of this world".

While this doesn't prove the Alien Hypothesis I feel that it's an important piece of context. These beings, if real, may not literally be aliens from other star system but they may very well be alien to us even they actually live closer to home.

One last point I want to make is just how common the UFO experience actually is. When I started having this conversion a surprising number of people had their own UFO story. My friend and his mom saw a glowing orb in their neighborhood and had weird dreams after, my brother and dad saw a weird glowing object buzz their van, my uncle saw the Hudson Valley Lights in the 80s, and it goes on and on. I've never met anyone who saw Big Foot or the Lock Ness Monster yet so many have UFO stories. It's hard to dismiss.

One can hardly suppose that anything of such worldwide incidence as the UFO legend is purely fortuitous and of no importance whatever (Jung, 1958).

It's going to be hard for me personally to investigate the nuts and bolts of UFO encounters. These are rare events and happen far from me and I don't have the technical ability to evaluate physical materials. Nor do I have the journalistic chops to look into secret government programs. However, I can support these efforts as much as I can and perhaps continue on with any psycho-social analysis that seems interesting. Maybe there is some value in a comparative analysis of high profile cases or some analytic technique that can sift out significant results from the noise.