Study finds belief in aliens and religious belief share a similar psychological motivation

New research suggests that paranormal beliefs about extraterrestrial intelligence are linked to the need to find meaning in life.

The study of 1,146 undergraduate students examined the psychological motivation behind believing that UFOs are spacecraft from other worlds and that the government has evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence but is covering it up.

The study found these paranormal beliefs about aliens were at least partially motivated by the need for meaning. A lack of meaning and a desire to find it were linked to greater belief in aliens, and experimentally heightening the need for meaning increased paranormal alien beliefs. The study also found that atheists and agnostics reported greater belief in aliens, which was in turn associated with a lack of meaning.

The study was published online in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Motivation and Emotion on March 6, 2017.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University. Read his explanation of the research below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Routledge: It might seem odd to be interested in the question of why people believe in extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), and the truth is, I am not especially interested in that specific question. What I find fascinating and important is not a particular atypical belief like belief in UFOs but the underlying cognitive and motivational nature of the spiritual mind and focusing on a domain like ETI helps reveal it. Let me explain. Research using traditional measures of religiosity such as religious affiliation, church attendance, and even belief in God suggests that the US and the Western world more broadly are becoming less religious, more secular. However, there are good reasons to doubt that this is entirely true. Sure, fewer people go to church or think of themselves as religious, but this does not necessarily mean they are any less engaged in religious-like spiritual activities or any less in need of the psychological benefits these activities provide. For instance, there is reason to believe that certain non-religious magical beliefs such as belief in supernatural energy, agents, and forces are actually increasing as is general interest in the paranormal. So one possibility is that it is not that people leaving traditional religion are becoming more secular but instead that are switching to other types of religious-like beliefs and interests to pursue spiritual needs.

Consistent with this idea is research from the cognitive science of religion that suggests that religious and spiritual beliefs are derived, in part, from underlying cognitive traits. So, for example, some people tend to be more intuitive thinkers whereas others tend to be more rational. It is actually a bit more complex than that but the basic idea is people naturally vary in the extent to which they prefer to rely on intuitive or more analytical thinking. People who tend to be more intuitive are more inclined to be spiritual and religious. However, there are a lot of reasons people abandon a religious belief or identity. Deciding you don’t like your church or particular faith anymore does not necessarily mean you are no longer naturally spiritually-inclined. It just means you have selected out of a particular belief. In fact, in my own research, I find that the same cognitive traits that predict level of spirituality among believers similarly predict level of non-religious spirituality among atheists. Likewise, among atheists, these traits predict a range of atypical or nontraditional religious-like beliefs.

But the cognitive architecture that facilitates spirituality and religiosity or religious-like beliefs and interests is only part of the story. Motivational processes also matter. For example, people tend to turn to religion when they experience stress, anxiety, loss, or uncertainty. Their faith is a stabilizing force, particularly when their sense of meaning in life is under threat. So there seem to be certain cognitive processes related to theory of mind, agency detection, and intuitive thinking that provide a foundation for spirituality and religion and psychological motives such as the need for meaning that trigger the utilization of these cognitive processes. Though whether or not someone identifies as religious certainly influences the specific belief they turn to in order to affirm meaning, it does not necessarily mean non-religious people don’t use the same underlying cognitive processes for meaning-making.

This is why I conducted research on paranormal beliefs related to aliens and UFOs. Past research has found a negative correlation between religiosity and paranormal ETI beliefs. We replicated this effect across a number of studies and also found that atheists are more likely to hold empirically-unsupported ETI beliefs than theists. So the big question is why? If atheists reject a belief in God, why would they, or at least some of them, believe that there are intelligent alien beings monitoring the lives of humans (these are the types of paranormal ETI beliefs we measured)? In this research we looked at the motive to perceive life as meaningful. We found support for a model in which low religiosity (and atheism) were associated with low perceptions of meaning and a high desire to find meaning (what is called search for meaning), and this desire for meaning in turn predicted ETI belief. In other words, people who were not getting meaning from religion were vulnerable to deficits in meaning and these deficits inclined them to search for non-traditional sources of meaning. Why ETI beliefs in particular? Part of the reason religion gives life meaning is it helps us feel connected to something bigger and more enduring, that we are not here by chance. ETI beliefs do not typically contain a traditional belief in a creator, but they do suggest that we are not alone in the universe. And intelligent aliens are often construed as agents watching over us. A lot of specific ETI beliefs involve being part of a cosmic brotherhood. And ETI beliefs seem, on the surface, more scientific as they do not typically invoke the supernatural. This makes them more palatable to atheists. However, the type of ETI beliefs we measured were more science fiction than science. They involved belief in advanced being monitoring humans as well as government conspiracies to hide evidence of UFOs from the public.

Though this one paper was about ETI beliefs, more generally my lab is looking at a range of non-traditional beliefs that people may be attracted to or at least interested in exploring because they do not like conventional religion but are trying to be part of something more meaningful and enduring than the transient and fragile existence inherent in being a biological organism. People are even creating new techno-religions that take ideas from transhumanism and inject some dimensions of spirituality. It is fascinating how modern secular people are modifying and repurposing ideas from older spiritual practices to approach existential questions about death and meaning.

What should the average person take away from your study?

The average person should take away the idea that the simple questions people tend to ask about religion in large surveys, though quite informative as far as documenting religious demographics, do not fully reveal people’s religious-like proclivities and interests. Some hardcore skeptics might point out that they do not believe in any of this stuff, that they are completely guided by reason and empirical data. It is true that being a hardcore skeptic tends to make one an atheist. However, this does not mean being an atheist makes one a hardcore skeptic. In other words, even atheists are a diverse group. There are atheists who reject belief in God but, as I documented in my work, still hold other paranormal and supernatural beliefs. So the hardcore, trained-up skeptics might not fully realize that rejection of one type of religious belief does not always generalize to a rejection of all religious-like beliefs.

Making matters more complex, there are many people who compartmentalize beliefs. This is why there are scientists and very intelligent people more broadly who are religious. They use analytic reasoning and empiricism to approach scientific questions or questions about life issues that are well-informed by data. And then they use a more intuitive type of reasoning to explore more existential questions and spiritual interests. These people tend not to be particularly dogmatic. They are just inclined to see certain types of questions and issues as being worth examining from a more spiritual perspective. I realize some hardcore skeptics reject this approach, but, nevertheless, it is the approach to life many people take.

This leads to an even more interesting observation, I think. That is, there are some people who would self-identify as Christian, for example, who are far more rational and empirical than some people who self-identify as atheist. That is, some Christians live an empirically-guided life in terms of following data-based guidelines about health, etc. They believe in science and rely on it for nearly every aspect of their life choices. And there are some atheists who do not. They have conspiracy beliefs about vaccines or endorse New Age healing practices that enjoy no empirical support. Most atheists aren’t like this. But neither are most believers. My point is that people often have simple ways of thinking about groups and naturally privilege atheists over theists in terms of living a life guided by empirical reasoning. And this isn’t always accurate. The view that atheists are Spock and theists are Kirk is an oversimplification. There are plenty of emotionally-driven atheists who trust their guts over reason and data in many life domains. And there are plenty of theists who are logical and rely on evidence in many life domains. So I am interested in looking beyond simple categorizations and in my work I am finding that atheists and believers are actually not as dissimilar as people tend to think. Therefore, I would tell the average person that research like the ETI studies I did, and that is just one example, suggest that people of belief and no belief have a lot in common.

Also, my lab is starting to get into what can be referred to as religious surrogates. This is the idea that all people need meaning in life and when they abandon religious-like paths to meaning they may be inclined to turn to secular beliefs to serve a meaning function. This is obvious in many ways as most of us get some meaning from our career, social connections, or personal triumphs. I also think this helps explain why certain academic fields have taken on religious-like qualities. We have seen this on display lately with some of the more extreme forms of campus protest and activism. There is a new orthodox in certain academics disciplines that, like a more fundamentalist religion, has very strict parameters about right and wrong and what kinds of questions can and cannot be asked, and who can and cannot ask questions to begin with. I hypothesize that there are underlying religious-like cognitive, social, and motivational processes at work that are making certain fields in the humanities and social sciences increasingly dogmatic and religious-like. In particular, it is the fields that have been most seduced by postmodernism and social constructionism that are the most religious-like. But those are issues for another interview.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

This research on meaning and ETI beliefs indicates that people, especially non-religious people, are interested in ETI, in part, because they are searching for meaning in life. However, this work in no way indicates that ETI beliefs do, in fact, provide or maintain meaning. Decades of research shows that traditional religious beliefs and identifications do a good job of providing meaning and protecting meaning when life events like the loss of a loved one or a terminal disease diagnosis threaten meaning. But there is no compelling reason to suggest, based on my studies, that ETI beliefs do the same. All my work shows is that when people lack meaning and are looking for it, they are more inclined to be open to and interested in paranormal beliefs.

These beliefs could be a very poor substitute for religion. Religion has a number of advantages over more fringe beliefs. For one, religion typically involves a social network, fellowship with others. And research shows that social bonds are a major source of meaning in life. Churches also provide a number of community services that connect people to broader meaning-providing cultural system. Further, religious beliefs provide personal structure or a code to live by, which can be meaning-affirming. And religion often creates a sense of continuity, that you are connected through time to a tradition that existed long before you and will endure long after you are gone. This type of continuity can provide a sense of enduring meaning, that though you are but a transient creature, part of you lives on through this broader and less fragile group identity. This helps explain why people are sometimes willing to make great personal sacrifices and even put themselves at risk to protect the institutions and identities that provide meaning beyond the mortal self.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think there are many important questions to be asked about the psychology of religion and more generally the psychology of ideology and spirituality. Thinking about religion in narrow or traditional terms or relying on simple views of religious vs. nonreligious people can obscure a number of fascinating features of human cognition and motivated reasoning. I have been doing this research for a number of years and for the last year or so have been writing a book on this topic, which will be published later this year. So if any of your readers are interested in this ideas, they can check out my website which has information about this work and will have information about the book once it is finalized and a publication date available.

Finally, thank you for your interest in this work and giving me a chance to talk about it.

The study, “We are not alone: The meaning motive, religiosity, and belief in extraterrestrial intelligence“, was also co-authored by Andrew A. Abeyta and Christina Roylance.