Humans Are More Excited About Aliens Than Synthetic Cells, Study Reveals

The truth is probably out there — but do we really want to know? Actually, yes, according to a new study.

Researchers at Arizona State University have analyzed how the public feels about the idea of alien life and it turns out most people are excited to know what’s out there. Despite the timeless narrative of alien terror exemplified in the Cloverfield films or Independence Day, humans actually have a much less apocalyptic perspective when it comes to other galactic lifeforms. In fact, we might be more excited to learn about Aliens than we are about creating our own bioengineered forms of life here on Earth.

“If we came face to face with life outside of Earth, we would actually be pretty upbeat about it,” says lead study author Michael Varnum, an assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State. “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.”

Varnum and his fellow researchers asked 500 participants online to write down how they would feel if they learned that extraterrestrial microbial life had been discovered, as well as how they thought humanity as a whole would feel about the same discovery. Participants reactions were overwhelmingly positive on the personal level, as well when it came to how they thought humankind would take the news.

The results were presented in Austin, Texas on Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The findings were also published in Frontiers in Psychology in January.

An artist's rendering of the view of the TRAPPIST-1 star from a potentially habitable exoplanet.

European Southern Observatory

Barnum and his colleagues also analyzed and compared the tone of media coverage that surrounded three separate potential discoveries of extraterrestrial life: a 1996 discovery of fossilized microbes that could be extraterrestrial in nature; the observance in 2015 that Tabby’s Star was periodically dimming, potentially as a result of its energy being harassed by an alien population, and the 2017 discovery of exoplanets with Earth-like qualities. Using a software program that enabled the researchers to quantify emotions in written texts, the group discovered that humans have a generally more positive than negative outlook towards alien discoveries.

“Across these studies, we found that reactions were significantly more positive than negative, and more reward vs. risk oriented,” the study notes.

One especially interesting finding from the study is that we may perceive alien life more positively than synthetic life. The researchers asked another group of 500 participants to read two newspaper articles; one that claimed that extraterrestrial microbial life had been found in a Martian meteorite, and another real article about the creation of a synthetic cell on Earth. Although participants responded warmly on the whole to the idea of the benefits of synthetics cells, more participants showed a stronger positivity bias towards the idea of alien life.

Anyone worried about mass hysteria and rash decision-making in the face of an alien visit might breath a little easier after hearing this news. “Taken together, this suggests if we find out that we’re not alone, we’ll take the news rather well,” says Varnum.

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