Since an observer’s mental outlook at the time of the sighting is of key importance, the context of the episode is very significant. The 1896–97 airship sightings occurred amid widespread rumors that a flying machine was on the verge of being perfected. Many Americans believed that such a dramatic achievement was at hand, and their emotions were stoked by speculative and often fabricated newspaper stories. As people began searching the skies for confirmation of the airship-invention stories, they expected to see airships, and did see them. Whereas modern sightings consist almost exclusively of “flying saucers” from outer space, citizens in 1896–97 were predisposed by popular literature of the era to see airships. The overwhelming majority of reports occurred at night and described ambiguous lights viewed at a distance. It is not surprising that given these circumstances, residents interpreted information in ways that were consistent with their view of the world.
Studies on the fallible nature of human perception and the tendency for people in group settings to conform are especially applicable.266 The human mind does not gather information like a videotape recorder. Humans interpret events as they perceive the world and often come to opposite interpretations of the same event witnessed under nearly identical circumstances, as anyone who has watched a hotly contested sporting event can attest. Perception is sometimes based more on inference than on reality, allowing for interpretations that often differ substantially from what actually exists. Research on autokinetic movement is applicable to such situations, as it concerns problem-solving dynamics.267 The variance of interpretations from what actually exists is especially noticeable with the perception of ambiguous stimuli or conflicting patterns of information within a group setting, which will result in members developing an increased need to define the situation, depending less on their own judgment for reality validation and more on the judgment of others for reality testing.
When the stimulus situation lacks objective structure, the effect of the other’s judgement is . . . pronounced. . . . In one . . . study of social factors in perception utilizing the autokinetic phenomenon, an individual judged distances of apparent movement first alone and then with two or three other subjects. This unstructured situation arouses considerable uncertainty. Even though they were not told to agree and were cautioned against being influenced, the individuals in togetherness situations shifted their judgement toward a common standard or norm of judgement. . . . The influence of various individuals differed, and the emerging common norm for judgement was in various instances above or below the average of individual judgements in the initial session alone.268
Research on the “autokinetic effect” is of more specific interest as it has been shown that individual judgments tend to agree in a group setting while observing the common stimulus of a pinpoint of light within a dark environment. This effect is well known among social psychologists and was first demonstrated in 1936.269 Individuals in situations lacking stable perceptual anchors begin to feel a sense of uneasiness, then anxiety as they have a heightened need to visually define or make sense of the light. In group settings, individuals will attempt to reduce the anxieties created by an uncertain situation.
A viewer in a completely dark room seeing one pinpoint of light experiences a visual stimulus without its normal attendant visual context. Up, down, back, forward, far and near, exist in relation to other stimuli and when this frame of reference is missing, the light is free to roam in one’s perceptual field. It is for this reason that considerable random motion will be experienced by anyone viewing the light.270
During highly ambiguous situations, such as people scanning the nighttime skies for an imaginary but plausible airship, “inference can perform the work of perception by filling in missing information in instances where perception is either inefficient or inadequate.”271
266. S. E. Asch, “Studies of Independence and Conformity: A Minority of One Against a Unanimous Majority,” Psychological Monographs, 70 (1956); D. Krech, R. S. Crutchfield, and E. L. Ballschey, Individual and Society (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962).
267. R. Turner, and L. Killian, Collective Behavior (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972), p. 35.
268. M. Sherif and O. J. Harvey, “A Study in Ego Functioning: Elimination of Stable Anchorages in Individual and Group Situations,” Sociometry 15 (1952): 272–305.
269. M. Sherif, The Psychology of Social Norms (New York: Harper and Row, 1936).
270. R. Beeson, “The Improbable Primate and the Modern Myth,” in G. Krantz and R. Sprague, eds., The Scientist Looks at the Sasquatch II. (Moscow, Idaho: University Press of Idaho, 1979), p. 180.
271. C. M. Massad, M. Hubbard, and D. Newston, “Selective Perception of Events,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 15 (1979): 513–32.
Il y a 286 notes de fin de chapitre, rien que pour le chapitre 1, à propos de la vague de 1896-97 !