As technology rapidly advances, we’re making astronomical discoveries faster than ever before. Many think it’s just a matter of time before we come across extraterrestrial life and prove that we’re not alone in the universe. So let’s say it actually happens. We uncover or are approached by alien life. Now what? How does the public react? Do our defensive instincts or humble curiosities take over? New research suggests that the general population’s reaction would be quite positive.
“If we came face to face with life outside of Earth, we would actually be pretty upbeat about it,” said Michael Varnum, an assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University, in a press release. “So far, there’s been a lot of speculation about how we might respond to this kind of news, but until now, almost no systematic empirical research.”
Varnum and a team of researchers decided to close that data gap by conducting three studies on emotional responses to the announcement of alien life. The results were presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Austin, Texas, on February 16.
The first study used software to analyze the text of various newspaper articles written about three potential discoveries of life beyond Earth. The software assessed the feelings, emotions, and other psychological reactions conveyed in articles about the following discoveries: possible fossilized extraterrestrial microbes in 1996, intermittent dimming around Tabby’s Star (thought to be caused by some sort of artificial structure) in 2015, and Earth-like exoplanets in the habitable zone of a star in 2017. The study found that the language used in these articles was overwhelmingly positive.
In a second study, the researchers asked over 500 participants to write down how they think they, as well as the rest of the world, would react to a confirmed case of extraterrestrial microbial life. It found that the emotions used to describe both their own and the population’s hypothetical reactions were substantially more positive than negative.
A third study gathered 500 additional participants and divided them into two groups. Each group was asked to write down their reaction to an article in The New York Times about a previous scientific discovery. One group was shown an article about synthetic human life allegedly being developed in a lab, and the other an article about a Mars meteorite containing signs of ancient microbial life. The emotional reactions to both articles were significantly more positive than negative in this study, particularly in the case of the discovery of microbial life.
“Taken together, this suggests if we find out we’re not alone, we’ll take the news rather well,” said Varnum.
Although extraterrestrial life hasn’t been discovered yet (and might never be), we at least know that if microbes or synthetic humans or full-fledged intelligent creatures ever come our way, they will likely be met with positive curiosity rather than malevolence. Your move.