This illustration shows a star surrounded by a protoplanetary disk. Material from the thick disk flows along the star’s magnetic field lines and is deposited onto the star’s surface. When material hits the star, it lights up brightly.
Among the stories the team chose covered was the strange behavior of Tabby’s star, which in 2015 was suggested to be the work of orbiting alien megastructures. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If we would find extraterrestrial life, people would become more fascinated than scared, according to a new study.

The search for extraterrestrial life is heating up with more advanced technology available to us, new more powerful instruments with increasing capability and the ever-increasing number of exoplanets discovered. But how would we react if we were told that we are not alone in the universe? This is the question raised by researchers and addressed at the AAAS Austin Science Conference last week.

This is the first time this type of psychological research has been undertaken on the subject, according to the researchers involved. The team led by Michael Varnum at the Arizona State University examined how the media reported about possible life on other moons and planets.

“The order and language used is noticeably much more positive than negative,”

– Study author Michael Varnum of Arizona State University said today during a press briefing at the AAAS meeting.

Besides probing the media, the researchers also asked more than 500 people to enquire how they considered that they and others would react if astronomers would find traces of life elsewhere in the universe. It turned out that an overwhelming majority of people were more enthusiastic than scared, and they also believed that they themselves would be more positive than humanity at large.

Finally, the researchers let the participants read one of two articles from the New York Times. One article from 1996 when researchers had discovered what first seemed to be fossils of extraterrestrial microorganisms found in a meteorite from Mars, while the other from 2010, reported that scientists managed to create artificial bacteria.

Asking whether the words in those stories reflected emotions that were more positive (e.g., “happy,” “nice,” “good”) or more negative (e.g., “worried,” “nervous,” “annoyed”). In both cases, participants reacted more positive, but the article about artificial life gave more negative reactions than the article about life on Mars.

Nor does it seem that we would be particularly worried if we discovered advanced extraterrestrial civilizations. Michael Varnum also investigated how the media reported about what some presented as a possible construction (a ‘Dyson Sphere’) around Tabbys star, and also more recently when the cigar-shaped Oumuamua asteroid from another solar system passed through our solar system, and some speculated whether it was a spaceship.

“The reports were consistently positive. So if media reports reflect the reactions of the public, it seems that we should take the news quite well.”

“If a hostile armada of warships appeared in proximity to the Earth, we would of course not be so happy. But it is much more likely that we will find traces of microorganisms or signals from civilizations very far away and from far back in time,”

– Michael Varnum.

The scientific field of astrobiology has become a serious scientific field in recent decades, a field that was almost absurd a couple of decades ago. To suggest that we should search for intelligent extraterrestrial life was probably like saying that we should look for fairies in the 1960s.

But since then, the pendulum has swung over in the other direction. Today, most researchers believe the universe is full of life. We now know that extrasolar planets are found everywhere, planets are common, we also know that our own solar system is awash in water, water is common, but even if the prerequisites for life appears to be good elsewhere in the universe, we still do not know how common life is.

The results were presented at the annual science conference AAAS in Austin, Texas, and published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.


Jung Yul Kwon, Hannah L. Bercovici, Katja Cunningham and Michael E. W. Varnum How Will We React to the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life? Front. Psychol., 10 January 2018 |