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Earth to aliens: Howdy, strangers!

Psychology study reveals positive reactions to potential of alien life


alien life
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August 29, 2019

Hollywood has always imagined the arrival of beings from other worlds as the cause to run through streets screaming, call up fighter jets, or, when all else fails, send in Tom Cruise.

But according to preliminary results of an Arizona State University study, if and when alien life arrives, most of the human race will see E.T., not the Predator.

A pair of psychologists queried about 2,000 people across the world, and their responses were almost uniformly positive, whether it was the discovery of microbial or intelligent life.

“If you read these responses, a lot of them are largely positive,” said Jung Yul Kwon, a graduate student earning a master’s degree in social psychology.

Kwon and co-author Michael Varnum, an associate professor of psychology, were surprised.

The pair did an initial study of American reactions. Results were similar. When the saucers land, they can expect welcome wagons, not tanks.

“We really didn’t know what the results would be outside of the U.S.,” Kwon said. “I’ve always been interested in this American fascination with extraterrestrial life. I’m from Korea, and I don’t think Koreans would respond in quite the same way. I’m really interested in what people from other cultures would have to say.”

The “Discovery of Life Cross-Cultural Study” queried people in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Mexico and Spain.

The only negativity was the British view of risks coming from contact with intelligent life. They felt it was somewhat risky.

Responses were free-form. Researchers analyzed them using a linguistic analysis program. A typical response came from Australia: “I would be absolutely excited about the new discovery and curious at the same time.”

The study is part of the School of Earth and Space Exploration’s Interplanetary Initiative, a pan-university effort to build the future of humans in space and create a bolder and better society. Questions of human space future across the whole landscape of human inquiry are be explored by teams integrating across the public-private-university sectors.

Varnum went to an Interplanetary Initiative meeting and wondered what psychology could contribute to the project. The study of international reaction to alien life arose from that.

They plan to collect data in developing countries next, Kwon said.

“It would be really interesting to ask the question in smaller-scale societies, or places where they don’t think about extraterrestrial life that much, and see what they have to say about the reaction to this sort of discovery,” he said.

Top illustration by Safwat Saleem/ASU Now

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