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Daughter of UFO Researcher James McDonald Wrote UFO Psychology Thesis

Ronilyn L. McDonald is the daughter of the late Dr. James E. McDonald, who was a senior physicist at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics and a professor of meteorology at the University of Arizona. Dr. McDonald became widely known for his UFO research. One could reasonably presume his children, were they inclined to be interested, developed familiarity with the people and issues making up the mid 20th century UFO genre. The younger McDonald became an exceptional academic student and apparently developed just such an interest.

In 1967 while earning a Bachelors in Psychology, Ronilyn McDonald was recognized as one of the top ten students at the University of Arizona. That same year, she authored an honors thesis titled Psychological Aspects of Unidentified Flying Objects. The work will be explored in this blogpost.

McDonald's thesis is part of the Ann Druffel Special Collection, located in the online Expanding Frontiers Archive. The select items posted online are part of a larger collection of files compiled by pioneer investigator Ann Druffel. The material was generously donated for the benefit of researchers and interested parties by her daughter, Allis Druffel. Learn more about Ann Druffel, the McDonalds, and our online and physical archives at the Expanding Frontiers Archive.

The McDonald family

Psychological Aspects of Unidentified Flying Objects assesses the reporting of UFOs and related phenomena from a psychological point of view. McDonald expresses interest in what UFO reports may offer psychologists for study and consideration. She thoroughly considers multiple emotional aspects of reported UFO encounters, including either fear or elation, and suggests the seemingly subjective conditions that manifest such emotions are in themselves worthy of study. This leads McDonald to sharing her observations that some who report UFOs seem in search of catharsis in the face of uncertainty and at least some negative public consequences, if not many negative consequences as a result of becoming known as UFO witnesses.

McDonald equally, however, acknowledges the complexity of the “sighters,” observing a percentage of them are quite intent on gaining publicity. There are many different types of people who report UFOs and there are many different potential explanations, and each of the two points are ongoing themes of the thesis. Sighters and the circumstances they orbit are complicated.

Some empathy for the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) and the UFO community at large is apparent, but her 100-page thesis mostly explores social dynamics and cites publications to establish the existence of those dynamics. McDonald aptly seems less interested in arguing UFOs than staying on point about the issues that can be competently dissected, or at least that may have been the case when she wrote it.

McDonald, 1986

Arguably, not much has changed on either side of the aisle, with skeptics and believers alike showing willingness to insert their preferred notions. Leading figures often speak in absolutes and sweeping generalizations, even when grossly inaccurate, and those are valid observations then, now, and all points in between. McDonald's paper is a salient and on point consideration of subjectivity and cultural influence, even if somewhat – and interestingly - serving as an artifact of same.

McDonald explores circumstances surrounding select known hoaxes, including a stunt pulled by some Cal Tech students, and offers readers insights into how widely reports differed of what was actually observed. This provides obvious implications about the lack of witness reliability, even when one is thoroughly convinced of the accuracy of their account.

The inherently vague nature of the entire shooting match is considered. “It seems that a recurring feature of considerations related to UFOs,” McDonald writes, “is the simultaneous existence of two directly opposite yet apparently equally plausible explanations of a single set of facts.”

This leads to pointing out circumstances most skywatchers would not accurately recognize even under ideal conditions, such as an inversion layer or refraction phenomenon. Challenges in depth perception with objects in the sky are duly noted. This is potentially compounded with illusions subject to take place as lights dim and brighten. Witnesses may incorrectly interpret such sights as an object coming closer or moving farther away, yet the instability of the perception is rarely understood by the witness.

Motivated perception – seeing what we want to see – undoubtedly factors in some reports. However, McDonald considers, “[T]he question of distortion of perception of an object due to factors of personal motivation is superseded by the question of the existence of the object itself.”

Circumstances surrounding motivated perception and the related personal conditioning is not limited to creation of spaceships in the eye of the beholder. It may also lead people to prefer to not see something they deem out of the ordinary or unidentified. McDonald cites an interesting account of psychologists witnessing a UFO from a commercial airline flight and finding themselves emotionally averting from alerting other passengers or crew to the object. One of them later remarked they found that more concerning than the sighting itself: their reluctance to ask others to take a look.

NICAP frontman Maj. Donald Keyhoe

McDonald addresses media coverage of the UFO phenomenon. The context of 1967 should be considered, as this was a point in time that NICAP was pushing hard for Congressional hearings. The organization was quite successful in its public relations efforts, as some are likewise today. McDonald makes an interesting observation about the Air Force's Project Blue Book abandoning a news clipping service due to the sheer number of reports regularly being published. It was pointless to compile so many witness accounts of UFOs, seemingly validated in the newspaper or not.

McDonald devotes ample space to addressing the “crackpot” factor, a term we might suspect was more widely in use and socially acceptable at the time than might be considered the case today. She adequately writes about different types of emotionally distressed and/or delusional people. Like other aspects of the complex social situations surrounding UFO reports, even the crackpots come in multiple shapes and sizes with layers of agendas.

Such an exploration simply cannot be done without addressing cults. McDonald cites the work of H. Taylor Buckner, “who emphasizes the embedding of the saucer clubs in a social substratum of occult 'seekers.'” Consideration is given to Buckner's observations that the most important thing to know about saucer clubs is they are organized by people already functioning within the occult social world.

Buckner described saucer clubs as “open-door cults.” Further explaining, McDonald quotes Buckner, “The flying saucer thus becomes a flying Rorschach blot. Anyone with an occult line to sell can hook it up to flying saucers in some way and have it accepted.”

Alas, however, McDonald refuses to throw the sighter baby out with the crackpot bathwater. She notes the differences between a number of more sober UFO witnesses and those who flock to saucer clubs, in that the former lack occult interests, among other reasons. It is also noted that those who observe UFOs and subsequently seek further understanding of the occurrence through saucer clubs typically do not learn anything of value from the clubs about UFOs, not to mention might have to avoid extremist religious indoctrination. “The person whose interest in the UFO phenomenon has been aroused by a sighting of what he absolutely cannot identify will soon discover that the flying saucer clubs will have little information to give him about the status of the UFO problem,” McDonald writes.

Moreover, the crackpots may often be recognized by their unshakable yet entirely unearned confidence. “Few, if any, crackpots have ever demonstrated humility,” McDonald notes from a 1964 Science article.

“The crackpot is almost always overly impressed with his discoveries – they're earthshaking.”

McDonald objectively observes commonalities between saucer clubs, religious extremists, and others who share such traits as participating in movements that have a splintering of sects. None of the movements and resulting sects can prove their beliefs, yet assert them with defiant confidence. McDonald argues a staple of such groups is if their doctrine is not unintelligible, then it will often be vague, and if neither vague nor unintelligible, it must necessarily be unverifiable.

The “salvationist saucer club,” by any other name, offers hope, as a movement must. It offers activities for the bored, meaning for the self-important, and optimism for those who have otherwise thrown in the towel on the things their culturally and socioeconomically more well-adjusted peers prioritize.

Yet a percentage of compelling reports persist, McDonald acknowledges throughout her thesis, or at least a category of reports that stubbornly resist easy and conclusive dismissal. Is this the Low Information Zone (LIZ) as Mick West asserts? An argument can be made, even for reports that leave trace evidence and physical circumstances in their wake. The LIZ may still apply, or at least obviously does until enough information is obtained to provide a conclusive explanation, however extraordinary that explanation may or may not prove to be.

McDonald writes on what she considers to be the difficulty in either dismissing or accepting accounts involving UFO occupants when reported by those other than crackpot fringe, or, in other words, not obvious cultist crackpots. She considers a number of such reports, including the Woodrow Derenberger encounter with “Mr. Cold,” of November 2, 1966, which provides some interesting context given the 1967 date of McDonald's thesis.

John Keel more widely introduced Derenberger and Indrid Cold in 1975

Other cases are referenced that are now considered classics, as well, including the work of Dr. Olavo T. Fontes on what we can recognize as the alleged alien abduction of Antonio Vilas-Boas. Students of fringe history will appreciate the Easter eggs located in McDonald's work along with the references to Derenberger and Vilas-Boas. For instance, consideration is given to the ways hallucinations may arise as put forth by “L.J. West,” or Louis Jolyon West, a psychiatrist and professor destined to be controversial, thrust into the public spotlight due to his examination of infamous criminals and when heavily implicated in Project MKULTRA.

No psychological thesis on UFOs would be complete without quoting Jung, particularly one authored in 1967. McDonald reflects, via the words of the famous psychoanalyst, “Even if UFOs are physically real, the corresponding psychic projections are not actually caused, but are only occasioned, by them... This particular projection, together with its psychological context, the rumour, is specific of our age and highly characteristic of it.”

Yet McDonald does not seek the coattails of Jung, quite the contrary. She asserts Jung's arguments are not convincing. McDonald takes Jung to task for what she describes as his failure to adequately address the complexities of some specific UFO reports and his minimization thereof through selective omission. Moreover, she questions the logic of his dismissal of UFOs in the face of uncritically exploring unverified, arguably paranormal, beliefs, such as religious visions and related phenomena. McDonald essentially argues Jung picks low hanging fruit and asserts explanations that lack scientific validity.

“At this point it appears that Jung himself fits the description of 'a man [who] with an excess of intuition lives in a world of unproven possibilities.'”

McDonald intermittently argues throughout her work that cross-cultural consistencies contained in UFO reports make it difficult to attribute a significant number of the more intriguing accounts to psychological conditions. She makes some well-supported and competent arguments, but one might counterargue that selective citation is required to compile consistencies across global cultures; there are arguably as many different accounts as similar. It might also be on point to assert that in the decades since she wrote her worthy work, the psychological paradigm has evolved to better understand the manifestations of symptoms of emotional trauma and the fallibility of memory, among other salient issues.

What consistencies we may observe across varying cultures and time periods may more be our inherent responses to select shared conditions than descriptions of physical flying objects and the characteristics and actions of alleged nonhuman entities. Very much in McDonald's defense, however, such literature was much less available in 1967 and her sober work was contributing to its ongoing emergence. The vast majority of UFO researchers still carefully shield themselves and their followings today from relevant material published by qualified psychology experts, which is to say people outside the psychological establishment know little about it now, much less then. McDonald was correctly identifying issues demanding to be adequately addressed and, in time, they were of course studied more sufficiently, even as some of her questions remain pointed and their answers elusive. She was not wrong in pointing out longer ladders are required to reach higher hanging fruit.

Ultimately, however, do we collectively even want answers? McDonald quotes Russell Baker:

After the first few landings, the public will begin to find the whole business tiresome... Nothing palls nowadays as rapidly as a miracle. After the first few saucer arrivals, we will ask, 'What's the idea of interrupting 'Bonanza' to report another saucer-load of moss balls?'
This is why the psychologists are wrong. We do not want flying saucers to exist because, once their existence is established, something exciting will go out of life and saucer landings will take their place in the humdrum of daily existence along with the comings and goings of Lyndon B. Johnson, the crash of airliners, and the billingsgate of politics.
What we want is to preserve the possibility that flying saucers exist without ever having to confront the real thing.
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