A team of researchers at Arizona State University conducted a study to understand how people might react if extraterrestrial life was discovered in microbial form. This topic has generated a lot of speculation over the years both within academia and the public sphere, but has received very little “empirical attention”. The study consisted of three parts, a pilot study assessing media coverage and two well-powered studies assessing individual reactions.
The results showed that people are likely to respond positively to the discovery of extraterrestrial microbial life. The findings were consistent across all three studies, including media coverage, individual forecasts of reactions, and actual reactions to announcements of the discovery. People had a strong positive response and a focus on rewards rather than risks.
The researchers analyzed media coverage of seven articles related to the discovery of extraterrestrial microbial life. The articles were selected from well-known sources with high scientific standards. Study 1 was designed to assess participants’ own predicted reactions to the discovery of extraterrestrial microbial life, as well as their forecasts of humanity’s reactions. Participants were asked to respond to a hypothetical discovery of extraterrestrial microbial life by providing open-ended responses and by answering two Likert-scale items. Likert-scale items are a type of survey question that assesses the level of agreement or disagreement with a particular statement.
Please answer the following questions regarding how you would feel if you learned that microbial life had been discovered outside of planet Earth:
- I would be concerned about potential risks
- I would be excited about potential opportunities and rewards
These questions were then answered on a seven point scale with 1 being “strongly agree” through 7 “strongly disagree”
The results from Study 1 showed that people’s predictions of their own reactions were more positive than their predictions of humanity’s reactions, with a greater positivity toward their own reactions. Study 2 was designed to assess people’s reactions to an actual announcement of the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Participants were randomly assigned to read one of two real newspaper articles: one about the discovery of microbial life on Mars and the other about the discovery of synthetic life in the laboratory. The results showed that people’s reactions to the discovery of extraterrestrial microbial life were more positive than their reactions to the discovery of synthetic life.
The results from all three studies showed that people had a strong positive response and a focus on rewards rather than risks when it came to the discovery of extraterrestrial life. This pattern was seen in media coverage, individual forecasts of their own reactions, and actual reactions to announcements of the discovery. The results were consistent and strong across all three studies, suggesting that people are likely to have a positive response if extraterrestrial microbial life is discovered.
One exception to this pattern was observed in Study 1, where participants indicated that they would perceive a discovery of extraterrestrial microbial life as presenting more potential risks than rewards. This discrepancy may reflect a difference in people’s spontaneous responses to open-ended questions compared to reactions that are framed around the measure of reward vs. risk. The study results did not show much variation in responses based on personality traits, disease avoidance, political orientation, or demographic factors such as income or ethnicity.
The study found that people’s forecasts about their own reactions to a hypothetical discovery of extraterrestrial microbial life was generally more positive than their forecasts regarding humanity’s reactions to such a discovery.
This difference may reflect why some past speculation regarding how society might react to this type of discovery has been fairly pessimistic. However, it is worth noting that the difference in positivity bias did not reflect a difference in the overall direction of the bias, merely its strength. This is significant because it shows that individuals themselves believe that the discovery of extraterrestrial microbial life would have a positive impact, but they were not as confident about how the rest of humanity would react to it.
The study found that people have a positive bias when it comes to their own thoughts on the discovery of extraterrestrial microbial life, and while they still have a positive bias when thinking about how humanity as a whole would react, their own positive bias is stronger. This highlights the idea that people may have a sense of illusory superiority, meaning they believe that their own personal reactions would be different from those of others.
The target issue of this study focused on reactions to microbial life, but it may well be that the discovery of intelligent extraterrestrial life could lead to very different reactions. The study’s pilot study examined whether reactions in articles differed for three events covered, but found no differences in the proportions of words reflecting positive or negative affect. However, the articles about the discovery of Earth-like exoplanets tended to convey more reward than risk compared to the articles about microbial life on Mars.
Although the results suggest that people appear to respond positively to the discovery of extraterrestrial microbes, the study does not know why. Future researchers are encouraged to test possible reasons, such as the discovery causing people to take comfort in the fact that we are not alone in the universe, strengthening their worldviews, or speaking to their desire for novelty.