Fear, pandemonium, equanimity and delight: human responses to extra-terrestrial life

Albert A. Harrison

Abstract

How will people respond to the discovery of extra-terrestrial life? Potentially useful resources for addressing this question include historical prototypes, disaster studies and survey research. Reactions will depend on the interplay of the characteristics of the newly found life, the unfolding of the discovery, the context and content of the message and human information processing as shaped by biology, culture and psychology. Pre-existing images of extra-terrestrials as god-like, demonic, or artificial will influence first impressions that may prove highly resistant to change. Most probably people will develop comprehensive images based on minimal information and assess extra-terrestrials in the same ways that they assess one another. Although it is easy to develop frightening scenarios, finding microbial life in our Solar System or intercepting a microwave transmission from many light years away are less likely to be met with adverse reactions such as fear and pandemonium than with positive reactions such as equanimity and delight.

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