spaceSpace and Physics

People Won't Panic If We Find Alien Life, Claims Study


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer


If we discovered alien life, people would be rioting in the streets, proclaiming an end to all religion and bowing down to our supposed extraterrestrial overlords who would no doubt be hell-bent on conquering our planet.

At least, that’s one way to look at it. Exactly how humans will react to the discovery of alien life – if it’s ever made – has been the subject of debate for quite some time. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), for example, has a stringent nine-step process to prepare people for the news.


But a group of researchers from Arizona State University has found that people might not actually be that terrified (by the discovery of microbial life, at least). They may, gasp, instead be rather positive about the whole thing. A pre-print of the study describing these findings is available online.

"What this suggests is, there's no reason to be afraid," Michael Varnum, one of the study’s co-authors, told Live Science. "We won't collapse. We're not going to have chaos in the streets."

In their study, they recruited people on Amazon’s online survey tool called Mechanical Turk. In the first part, 501 people were asked to write responses to the supposed discovery of alien life, and how they thought the public would react. The results showed that people thought humanity would be pretty positive about such a discovery.

“People believe that they will react positively to the discovery of extraterrestrial microbial life and that humanity as a whole will do the same,” the team wrote in their paper. So, all good there.


In the second part of the study, 256 people were given an article suggesting that alien life may have been found, and 249 were given an article about synthetic life being created in the laboratory. Again, people were generally positive about an announcement of alien life, tending to look more at the potential reward rather than the risk. The researchers weren't clear why, however.

“Perhaps such news causes people to take comfort in the fact that we are not all alone in the universe,” they wrote.

But on the whole, it seemed people might be able to handle the detection of alien life pretty well. In our own Solar System, we’re getting closer to finding out if there is microbial life on places like Mars or Enceladus. Perhaps a discovery one way or the other isn't too far away.

“We began this paper with a question: how will we react when we learn that alien life has been discovered?” the researchers wrote. “If our findings provide a reasonable guide, then the answer appears to be that we will take it rather well.”


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