Jan 18, 2011
Yes, at least in Western society, where rapidly developing science and technology give rise to a sense that almost anything can happen. In 1960, we used dial phones and many people were on party lines! We still had to use operators to call long distance and calls were expensive. Today, we use compact and light cell phones that can play music, show movies, make conference calls, surf the Web, and have thousands of other apps. We find such “gee whiz” technology everywhere we look—automobiles, computers, operating rooms, factories, kitchens, airplanes and spacecraft, and weapons of all sorts. And we live in a culture where television programs, books, video games, toys, sweatshirts, and so much more encourage us to think about ET.
We have been exposed, again and again, to ideas about ET, and this repeated exposure makes us more open to the possibility that extraterrestrial life will be discovered and has prompted us to think about possible results. Public opinion polls reveal that at least half of the respondents think that extraterrestrial life exists, and a substantial number of people believe that ET has visited or is visiting Earth.
If we discover microbes on Mars, or intercept a radio transmission from a distant solar system (these are the two basic ways that scientists are looking for extraterrestrial life), there will be many different kinds of reactions. No matter how the discovery comes about, some people will be pleased; some people will not really care one way or another; and yes, some will be upset.
If ET is friendly, seems familiar, and the discovery unfolds slowly over time, we might expect favorable reactions to predominate. If ET is hostile, radically strange, and appears out of nowhere, we should expect something else. Where really don’t know much about ET (if ET exists), we do know a lot about people. When it is possible, rather than rely on opinion, we should look to history, survey research, psychological studies, and other scholarly resources for hints as to how people are likely to react. Also, too many discussions focus on people’s weaknesses rather than strengths.
At least 50 years of careful research by sociologists shows that widespread beliefs about panic are mistaken. (By “panic” I mean frenzied, ineffective behavior that interferes with other people’s welfare.) Because of the panic myth—and sociologists do use the term “myth”—many people are more worried about the damage that will be done by wild-eyed crazies than the harm that might be done by ET. But maybe we should give ourselves some credit for what people do right and keep in mind that both individuals and societies have many ways to adapt.
My best guess is that most people in modern Western society will take the discovery with a grain of salt. The discovery will generate excitement, some confusion, and great interest in further details. Then, because it could take a very long time to get these details, the story will recede to the “back pages.” Perhaps the biggest challenge will be living with ambiguity. But ambiguity is a part of everyday existence, and I suspect that before too long, people’s attention will move on.
Albert Harrison is an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis.