A Third of Americans Believe in UFOs, but They Aren't All Looking for the Same Thing

The sun begins to rise along Nevada Highway 375, also known as the Extraterrestrial Highway, just north of Groom Lake or 'Area 51.'. (Photo: Will Pedro/Shutterstock)

Behind every alleged unidentified flying object sighting, every creepy alien story and every first-contact theory, there's a person. An earthling who believes a little — or a lot — in the idea that aliens have visited Earth or are trying to.

So who are all these people? Writer Sarah Scoles was interested in finding out, and it's the people behind the science, philosophy and conspiracy theories of UFOs who she focuses on in her book, "They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers."

Belief in UFOs is currently at a high point, with a 2019 Gallup poll showing that 33% of Americans "believe that some UFO sightings over the years have in fact been alien spacecraft visiting Earth from other planets or galaxies." About 60% of Americans are skeptical and 7% aren't sure — but 16% of people who answered the poll said they have personally witnessed a UFO.

Why UFOs now?

Those numbers are on the rise again in recent years due, in part, to a bombshell of an article published in December 2017 by The New York Times. A front-page story detailed a five-year program at the Pentagon call the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP). That program's findings included a number of reports of unidentified flying objects. In later interviews, key members of that program offered more detail. As TreeHugger covered at the time, Luis Elizondo, the head of AATIP, told then-Defense Secretary James Mattis:

"In my opinion, if this was a court of law, we have reached the point of 'beyond reasonable doubt.' I hate to use the term UFO, but that’s what we’re looking at," said Elizondo. "I think it's pretty clear this is not us, and it's not anyone else, so one has to ask the question where they're from."

Contrary to what might be assumed, many in the UFO community were skeptical of this news, though author Scoles said this was interestingly divided by generation, with older people more skeptical and Millennials excited to hear confirmation, a divide that got Scoles interested in the group. She attended the UFO Congress — a huge annual meeting of the UFO-interested — held just a couple months after the Pentagon program's revelation. She talked to 22 people for her book, and what's interesting is how different they are from each other; this is no monolithic group.

She traveled to famous sites on the extraterrestrial map, including Roswell, New Mexico and Area 51, the UFO Congress, the Pentagon, Skinwalker ranch in Utah and even meetings of a local UFO group in Denver where she lives. As she dug deeper into UFO society, Scoles discovered there are different reasons and attitudes that get people thinking or obsessing about UFOs.

The moderate skeptics

a vintage Area 51 signs hangs on a gate
Sheer curiosity — and a feeling that information is being withheld — is the drive that keeps many people engaged in the UFO conversation. (Photo: Dean Clarke/Shutterstock)

"I was surprised to find the moderate types," says Scoles, pointing out that when you think about someone who spends a lot of time thinking about UFOs, you're unlikely to picture a science-minded person who thinks there are likely good explanations for UFO sightings. She was curious, "If you don't believe in this thing, why would you spend time or energy to figure this out?"

Scoles says this group is a "large minority" of UFO-interested people, and discovered that what drives them is probably similar to what drives a scientist: plain old curiosity. Like a good researcher, they're not out to "prove" a belief; instead they're focused on the question, and how to answer it. This group is focused on how they can use science to understand, explain, explore or disprove the idea of alien life.

Scoles says the people in this group reminded her of the SETI astronomers, who use giant telescopes to look for possible messages from beyond Earth. Many of those scientists don't think alien civilizations exist, but they're "interested in the question even if the answer isn't exciting," says Scoles.

The spiritualists and the hopefuls

tall metal alien sculpture outside Alien Research Center in Hiko, Nevada
A tall metal alien sculpture greets visitors to the Alien Research Center, an extraterrestrial-themed gift shop in Hiko, Nevada. (Photo: BrianPIrwin/Shutterstock.com)

Another subset of UFO fans are those who treat the idea of extraterrestrials as a kind of secular religion. While there are some cultists (including those who see aliens as some kind of god or gods), many of those who see the possibility of advanced alien life regard it as a sign of hope. If they survived, then humanity may be able to overcome our current challenges and keep advancing to the stars. This idea is behind plenty of sci-fi franchises as well, especially "Star Trek," which directly addresses the idea that we live in perilous times and that there can be positive visions of humanity's future.

Thinking about how aliens may have overcome their own challenges can give us a hypothetical look at how aliens could be a model for us, says Scoles. "If there is [an alien civilization] it will be older, it will have survived energy and other crises. The idea that somebody else did it gives us a role model for ourselves."

But there's also a less practical spiritual take — the sweet allure of the unknown. Scoles writes of a friend who stopped in a small town south of Des Moines, Iowa, where "spook lights" had been seen. As soon as he sat down at a bar and asked about the lights, people opened up, excited to tell a stranger what they had seen. "There was some mystery and magic left here, after all. There still existed something, even in this tiny town, that felt unfamiliar," Scoles writes. "And maybe someday, when they weren't expecting it, they'd be lucky enough to experience that feeling first hand again."

The true believers and conspiracy theorists

There are some people who believe that, odds are, there is life in the universe outside Earth, and those life forms have have visited our planet. This group might overlap with the spiritualists, but not necessarily. After all, some people fear the idea of aliens: "There's people who talk about aliens and UFOs who see them as an existential threat," says Scoles.

But others look at the statistics around the number of stars and habitable planets and see the possibility of life having arisen on other planets as not just possible, but probable. They think first contact has already likely happened, or they believe enough of the conspiracy theories that their judgement says it's more likely than not that we've already had some alien contact.

Of course, there are those who believe in UFOs almost entirely due to their belief that it's been covered up for years, "whether they think the conspiracy is hiding aliens or their classified technology," says Scoles. Their belief is rooted in what they see as the "cover-up."

So with all these different groups of people interested in alien life and spacecrafts, is there anything that unites them?

"I think everybody across the whole UFO spectrum from skeptics to true believers is motivated by a sense of wonder, encountering a thing that they don’t know fully," says Scoles.