Will People Panic When We Find Alien Life? A New Study Reveals the Answer

When alien life first becomes known to the human race, will people react with awe or fear? This question was examined in a new pilot study, which examined reactions to earlier news stories concerning extraterrestrial life.

Reactions to media reports of alien life, including potential fossilized microbes found in a Martian asteroid, were examined using a software program which analyzes public responses to events. Other news stories studied included reports of the dimming of Tabby’s Star, which could be explained by the presence of an advanced technological society, and the discovery of several Earth-like planets in the TRAPPIST-1 solar system. Analysis of the data showed the majority of public responses were favorable.

“If we came face to face with life outside of Earth, we would actually be pretty upbeat about it, 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,” said Michael Varnum, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University.

Flying saucers over a city
How will people react when the discovery of alien life is announced? The answer may be out of this world.

In 1953, The Robertson Panel, headed by physicist and mathematician Howard Robertson, warned of the possibility of mass panic if the public learned of the existence of alien life. A 2011 national survey determined that 25 percent of the American public believed people would panic if alien life became known. However, both studies focused on intelligent civilizations, rather than lower lifeforms. This newest research shows, however, that the discovery of intelligent life would be unlikely to result in mass hysteria.

Even the discovery of microbial life from another world would be received well, according to the study. Over 500 participants were asked to describe their own feelings to such news, as well as predict how the public as a whole would react. Most people surveyed believed the news would be regarded as favorable by a majority of people worldwide.

Researchers asked one group in their study to read stories concerning the discovery, in 1996, of features in a Martian asteroid that resemble fossils of microbes, while the control group was provided with a story regarding development of synthetic human life. Although both groups showed a positive response to the stories, participants were more supportive of the story of extraterrestrial life.

“[M]ost speculations regarding humanity’s reactions to extraterrestrial life, both in fiction and otherwise, have focused on discovering evidence of intelligent life from elsewhere, while less consideration has been given to how we may react to the discovery of extraterrestrial life that is not intelligent, even though we are more likely to encounter microbial life in our solar system,” Varnum and his team wrote in an article detailing their study, printed in Frontiers in Psychology.

The findings were presented on February 16 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held in Austin, Texas.

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