Alien life has been depicted in films and television shows in all manner of ways. In some cases, fictional humans reacted with violence: There was all-out chaos in Independence Day; there were baseball-bat attacks in Signs; and Sigourney Weaver barely survived in Alien. In others, on-screen people felt ok with visitors from deep space: ET was cute; Alf was odd; and Fox Mulder and Dana Scully kept an open mind.
If humans actually did come into contact with alien life, would we take it well?
That’s what Arizona State University psychologist Michael Varnum set out to determine in an empirical research project presented Feb. 16 at a American Association for the Advancement of Science
annual meeting. Varnum found that we’d meet visitors from the cosmos with relative optimism. “If we came face to face with life outside of Earth, we would actually be pretty upbeat about it,” Varnum said in a statement. In other words, we wouldn’t panic.
He deduced as much by looking at both past media coverage of the possibility of alien life, and contemporary responses to the hypothetical of extraterrestrials landing on Earth. Varnum started off by using a computer program to analyze language that appeared in newspaper articles about five different scientific discovery events, dating back to the 1960s, each in some way connected to the possibility of extraterrestrial life. The program categorized and calculated the percentages of words in the text of articles that reflect emotions, feelings, drives, and other psychological factors. The source material included, among others, the 1996 discovery of possibly fossilized Martian microbes, the 2015 discovery of periodic dimming around a faraway star—some fantasized it to be an alien megastructure, though it’s just dust—and the 2017 discovery of exoplanets that closely resemble Earth and, therefore, could host life as we know it.
In all cases, the reactions captured in the articles were overwhelmingly positive, the study shows.
Next, Varnum asked about 500 people to write about their own reactions—and their perceptions of what society’s reaction might be at large—to the prospect of microbial life being discovered elsewhere. The responses were mostly positive, the study shows. Varnum also asked a different set of people to read two New York Times articles: one about extraterrestrial microbial life being discovered and another about a synthetic human life being created in a laboratory. Again, the responses were overwhelmingly positive.
Perhaps surprisingly, the people seemed to have a more positive feeling about the possibility of alien life than about synthetic human life. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that we’re far closer to building machines with brains than we are to finding intelligent life that doesn’t live on the surface of the Earth.