Arthur J. Villasanta - Fourth Estate Contributor
Tucson, AZ, United States (4E) - It's a question that simultaneously evokes fear and awe: When humankind makes contact with an advanced, intelligent life form, how will it react?
Not with horror and not with delight, says the first study of its kind into this vexed question.
"If we came face to face with life outside of Earth, we would actually be pretty upbeat about it," said Michael Varnum, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University.
Varnum and his colleagues analyzed language in newspaper stories about past potential extraterrestrial life discoveries. The team aimed to address the nature of reactions to extraterrestrial life by analyzing reactions using a software program that quantifies emotions, feelings, drives and other psychological states in written texts.
The pilot study focused on the 1996 discovery of possibly fossilized extraterrestrial Martian microbes; the 2015 discovery of periodic dimming around Tabby's Star thought to indicate the presence of an artificially constructed "Dyson sphere" and the 2017 discovery of Earth-like exoplanets in the habitable zone of a star.
It found that language in the coverage of these events showed significantly more positive than negative emotions.
In another study, Varnum's team found evidence of significantly more positive than negative emotions in responses to the claimed discovery of extraterrestrial life. This effect was stronger in response to reading about extraterrestrial life than human made synthetic life.
Varnum also analyzed recent media coverage of the possibility that the interstellar Oumuamua asteroid might actually be a spaceship. He also found evidence of more positive than negative emotions, suggesting that we may also react positively to the news of the discovery of evidence of intelligent life from elsewhere in the universe.
Varnum said the studies show that "taken together, this suggests if we find out we're not alone, we'll take the news rather well."
The results of the first three studies were published in Frontiers in Psychology and analysis of reactions to Oumuamua were presented at AAAS for the first time. ASU doctoral students Hannah Bercovici and Jung Yul Kwon, and ASU alumna Katja Cunningham, assisted Varnum in the research.
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