Martians welcome: Studies find people cheer—not fear—the possibility of alien life

AUSTIN—Despite the depiction of evil aliens bent on world domination often portrayed in movies, most people don’t fear extraterrestrials—at least if they’re microbes—according to three new studies presented here yesterday at the annual meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science. In the first study, Michael Varnum, a psychologist at Arizona State University in Tempe, and his team used a software program that analyzes written text to determine whether articles about the possibility of extraterrestrial life showed signs of positive or negative emotions. The study looked at 15 articles from three news events across 21 years: the 1996 discovery of possible fossilized microbes on Mars, the 2015 discovery of periodic dimming around Tabby’s Star (which was said to indicate the presence of an alien megastructure), and the 2017 discovery of Earth-like exoplanets in the habitable zone of a star. Using software that scanned the articles, the team found there were three times as many words indicating positive emotions (such as happy, excited, and cool) than negative emotions. In the second study, the group asked more than 500 participants write about their hypothetical reactions, and the hypothetical reaction of humanity, to the announcement that microbial extraterrestrial life had been discovered. Reactions were overwhelmingly positive, with most participants having five times as many positive words as negative in their prompts. In the final study, Varnum’s group gathered the reactions of more than 500 different participants to newspaper articles. They gave one group a New York Times article describing evidence of ancient microbial life on Mars, and the other group read a New York Times article that claimed scientists had successfully created life in a lab. Participants used 10 times more positive words than negative words in response to the news about alien life, and that the responses were overall more enthusiastic than those given by the participants who read the article about humanmade synthetic life. The study did not look at whether people would feel differently if actual beings were discovered rather than microbes—those reactions might be quite different.

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