How would humanity react to the news that alien life does indeed exist? That’s what the members of the Arizona State University Interplanetary Initiative set to find out. And through a series of experiments, Interplanetary Initiative member and Arizona State University psychologist Michael Varnum has teamed up with planetary scientists to come up with an answer. According to their study, Americans, at the very least, would react positively.
To come to this conclusion, Varnum and his colleagues conducted three experiments. The first experiment involved analyzing how the media through the years has reported on five different events relating to extraterrestrials. These events, according to WashingtonPost.com, were:
- The discovery of pulsars in 1967.
- The “Wow!” signal of 1977, a strong radio signal believed to be alien in origin.
- The 1996 announcement of fossilized microbes on the meteorite Allan Hills 84001.
- The 2015 reports of unusual light fluctuations of Tabby’s Star.
- The 2017 discovery of exoplanets existing within habitable zones.
The team entered 15 articles covering the events into a program that evaluates positive or negative words in written content. Varnum and his team found that journalists largely used far more positive words than negative ones in their articles.
For the second experiment of the study, the researchers paid 500 online participants to react to announcements on alien microbes and to the hypothetical discovery of extraterrestrial microorganisms. The participants were also asked to guess how the rest of the world would respond to both scenarios. Although the participants themselves gave answers that were mostly in the positive, they stated that a good number of people wouldn’t share in their excitement. As explained by Varnum, this may be because “most Americans tend to think, on any desirable trait or ability, that they’re better than the average person.” (Related: Alien life could exist BELOW the surface of Mars, shocked scientists discover)
In the final part of the study, the researchers recruited over 250 people and randomly assigned them to read one of two articles from the New York Times. The first was a 1996 article — its date removed — that detailed the discovery of fossilized microbial life on Allan Hills 84001; the second was a more recent piece that reported about the creation of synthetic life in the laboratory of geneticist Craig Venter. While both articles garnered positive reactions, the researchers noted that the responses to the fossils were far stronger.
Speaking of the results, Yale University psychologist Gordon Pennycook, who played no part in the experiments, stated that he was “pretty confident” that Americans would, at the very least, welcome the news of alien microbes.
In spite of the overwhelmingly positive responses, Varnum has warned that these may not necessarily apply to the rest of the world. “Chinese participants were able to imagine contact would lead to both risks and benefits,” Varnum said, then added that Americans would see the discovery as “all good or bad, but not both.”
And if aliens do indeed exist, there would be no guarantee that their lot would be the peaceful or friendly sort. Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking has stated we should “be wary” about answering any alien signals or meeting with extraterrestrial civilizations. “If aliens visit us, the outcome could be much like when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” he warned.
Still, there are those who remain confident that first contact between humanity and aliens would be pleasant. “The idea of a civilization which has managed to survive far longer than we have…and the fact that that technology remains an aggressive one, to me, doesn’t make sense,” said Jill Tarter, co-founder and former director of the SETI Institute. To Tarter, any alien civilizations that have mastered universal travel will be sophisticated enough to be amicable.