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There are a number of instances when people have had some unusual, mysterious experiences. A lot of people claim to have seen unusual creatures. These may include monsters, beasts, demons, or the highly popular Bigfoot.

There has not been any conclusive evidence for any of such sightings. Many of these sightings have turned out to be a hoax. Yet there are many of such experiences that are not true but are in no way a hoax or a lie.

People strongly believe to have viewed something or have had some kind of experience, even if it has not existed. They are not bluffing, trying to seek attention, or trying to create any kind of controversy. They simply believe in it, when actually there has not been any of such an occurrence. This may sound strange and hard to believe, but it is reality.

As strange as it may sound, there are some psychological factors that come into play in such occurrences. These psychological factors make an individual believe that they have seen something unusual even if it may have not existed. There are actually proper psychological explanations for the sightings of the unusual.

Some people may perceive a creature to be unusual. They see something but perceive it to be something else. This happens due to the phenomenon of perceptual set. Perceptual set is a readiness to perceive an object (stimuli) in a specific way due to prior knowledge/information or the context of the object that leads to ignoring some types of stimulation and becoming attuned to others. In simple terms, it can be said that perceptual set leads to perceiving an object in a specific manner while causing the individual to ignore any other alternative.

Perceptual set creates certain expectations, referred to as perceptual expectancy that may significantly influence perception. This expectation, which includes immediate experience and psychological state, makes individuals perceive things in a particular manner. 

Perceptual expectancy works best in ambiguity. A number of laboratory experiments have demonstrated that participants perceive an ambiguous picture or figure in terms of prior information that is given to them before they were shown that picture or figure. The prior information works as a set according to which they organize the ambiguous stimuli given to them in the form of a picture or figure.

A clear example of perceptual set coming into play is when in ancient times people used to go for long journeys into the sea. After returning they used to report of sighting huge sea monsters. These claims sound intriguing. But there has been no evidence of the existence of those sea monsters. Consequently, these claims were dismissed as many of the ancient myths and legends.

This changed when a few years ago the giant squids were discovered. Giant squids are humungous in size, measuring up to a staggering 45 feet in length. Giant squids itself were considered to be mythical creatures. There were only speculations about it, until it was actually discovered.

Perhaps it was giant squids that the ancient voyagers saw, and perceived them to be some kind of sea monsters. In ancient times, the sea was seen as something that had an element of mystery. People used to travel for months in the sea to try to discover new land. With mystery comes the element of fear. They also might have heard stories of people encountering strange, dangerous creatures. All this might have formed a context in which they expect (perceptual expectancy) to see something unusual and fearful.

While encountering or even catching a glimpse of an unusual creature such as a giant squid that may have been as long as 45 feet in length, they might have perceived it to be as a dangerous creature; thus, giving rise or furthering the legend of the sea monster.

Like the sea monster, another very popular legend is that of the Loch Ness Monster. The Loch Ness Monster is a dinosaur-like creature that has a long neck. It is believed to be living in the lake of Loch Ness, situated in the highlands of Scotland.

A large number of people gather around the lake just to have a glimpse of the monster. Many people claim to have seen it. However, apart from some blurry pictures and sonar readings, there has not been any concrete evidence of its existence. Whether the Loch Ness Monster really exists or not is a question that has not yet been answered. It could very much be a possibility that many of the people, who have claimed to see it, might have actually seen something else.

Being at the lake of Loch Ness creates expectations of sighting the Loch Ness Monster. Through newspaper articles and information in popular culture, people have a somewhat vague idea of how it looks like. Viewing something slightly similar to their imagination of what a Loch Ness Monster might look like, might make them believe that they have actually sighted it.

For instance, someone might see a large log floating far off in the lake. The part of the log that is outside the water might resemble a long neck, something that the Loch Ness Monster is known to have. This could make that person believe that he/she has seen the monster, when in reality was just a log.

The whole setting coupled with prior information creates a context in which a log is perceived to be a monster, which is again a clear example of perceptual expectancy. In fact, many of the claims of sighting the Loch Ness Monster, after further investigation, turn out to be either a log or a lead pipe.

Perceptual set or perceptual expectancy could also be a plausible explanation for many of the sightings of the Bigfoot, which is perhaps the most popular among all the mysterious and legendary creatures. The Bigfoot is a large, hairy, half-human and half-ape like creature. It is believed to be about 7 to 10 feet tall that walks upright. It is said to inhabit in forests, in the Pacific Northwest region of North America.

Most of the sightings of the Bigfoot have been reported to be from a far-off place where people claim to have seen it hiding behind bushes or walking in the forest. It is more than often a very fuzzy figure that they see. This fuzziness makes it more susceptible for perceptual expectancy to come into play.

Usually, it has been found that what people claim to be the Bigfoot is actually a large bear or gorilla. Due to perceptual expectancy, the bear or gorilla is perceived to be the Bigfoot. An individual who is in the region where the Bigfoot is believed to inhabit sees a big hairy figure behind bushes and thinks that he/she has sighted the Bigfoot. The whole situation creates such a context that when an individual sees a fuzzy figure that even remotely resembles the Bigfoot, it is actually perceived to be that way.

These explanations make it clear that many of the sightings of unusual and mysterious creatures are perhaps a result of perceptual expectancy. People see something but perceive it to be something else. They are not lying about it; they strongly believe to have sighted something out there.

A set in perception may not be the only explanation behind the sightings of such mysterious, legendary creatures. Another explanation for such sightings, not as common a phenomenon as perceptual set or perceptual expectancy, could be fantasy-proneness.

Fantasy-proneness occurs due to the personality trait known as fantasy-prone personality (FPP). People with fantasy-prone personalities have a profound sense of fantasy. They spend most of their time fantasizing. They have a lot of difficulty in differentiating between their imagination and reality. Many a times they believe their imaginations to be real. They believe that their fantasies are a part of their actual life. They feel that the things they imagine occur in reality. For them, their imagination is their reality.

There are very few people who have been found to have the fantasy-prone personality. It is more of a rarity. Nevertheless, there is research evidence of people with fantasy-prone personality.

A lot of people reporting paranormal experiences have been found to be associated with fantasy-proneness. The most common of such paranormal experiences have been false pregnancies, psychic experiences, out-of-body experiences, interactions with ghosts, and alien abductions.

It could be quite possible that some of the reported sightings of mysterious and legendary creatures are a result of fantasy-proneness. An individual with fantasy-prone personality might see a large gorilla moving behind bushes, which makes his/her imagination run wild. The gorilla being behind bushes may make it appear to be fuzzy, which adds to the imagination. That person might start believing that he/she has actually sighted the Bigfoot.

Fantasy-proneness could very well be the reason behind some of the sightings of the very mysterious and legendary creature known as the Mothman that is known to live in West Virginia, USA. The Mothman is a half-man and half-bird like creature with red shiny eyes and wings that resemble that of a moth. It is believed to be about 7-feet tall and its wings spread to about 10-feet.

It may look scary, but people who have claimed to encounter it say that it does not try to harm them. It only tries to communicate something; generally about some natural disaster that might occur sometime in the future. It is also said to create a shrieking kind of a sound.

The sightings of the Mothman could very well be a result of fantasy-proneness. What some people believe to be the Mothman could actually be a large bird. For instance, a sand-hill crane stands as tall as a grown up person and its wingspan is 7-feet. It also has reddish eyes. In the effects of bright lights, these eyes could appear shiny.

A reported sighting of the Mothman could have actually been a sand-hill crane viewed by a person with fantasy-proneness. The sand-hill crane could have made the person to start imagining at an extreme level to the extent that he/she thinks of the Mothman. Due to fantasy-proneness, the person begins to strongly believe to have sighted the Mothman.

This could also be an explanation of perceptual expectancy. But these are said to be close encounters and in such instances perceptual expectancy is unlikely to occur. Moreover, the drama involved in these encounters such as the Mothman trying to communicate something, creating a shrieking sound, and red shiny eyes, make it more likely to be fantasy-proneness. Skeptics also suggest that what people see is a sand-hill crane or a large albino owl and believe it to be the Mothman.

There are a large number of mysterious and legendary creatures that are believed to exist on this planet. Even though there is yet no concrete evidence of their existence, the claims of the sightings of such creatures never end; they keep on growing.

Many of the sightings could quite possibly be due to psychological phenomena like perceptual expectancy and fantasy-proneness. Proper investigations into many such sightings reveal that people see something and believe it to be something else.

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, podcaster, and TEDx speaker. I also conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India


TF said...

Nice article. Chupacabra is also one mythical creature people have claimed to have seen. But usually it turns out to be a large rabid dog.

Saif Farooqi said...

Thanks! Yeah I was thinking of writing about the chupacabra, but left it out at the last moment :)

Anonymous said...

I used to suffer from physical, visual, and auditory hallucinations. It got so bad that I thought I was going insane or had a tumor in my brain. I found out that they were brought on by narcolepsy. I am now happily diagnosed and medicated. Sleep deprivation is a real issue here. My dad also has claims of "seeing" entities and aliens. He's an insomniac. Just thought I'd contribute to some other likely explanations. Sleep disorders are a real bitch.

Saif Farooqi said...

Yeah, hallucinations due to sleep disorders and other disorders like schizophrenia make people see strange things. However, hallucination is perception without a stimulus. The person sees things when nothing is present. This post/article, on the other hand, is about psychological phenomena in which people may see a normal thing but interpret it as something strange and unusual.

But yes, hallucinations do make people see weird things and it surely can be very disturbing for the individual. :)