Encountering extraterrestrial intelligence

Albert A. Harrison looks for lessons from history.

How can researchers educate their guesses about human responses to extraterrestrial life? The analysis of precedents and prototypes is one prominent strategy.

Prototypes are situations and events that with varying degrees of convincingness approximate different contact scenarios, and models based on them point researchers in promising directions. As American astronomer and author Steven J. Dick (2013, p.227) points out, analogues offer both ‘promise and perils’, depending on the degree of correspondence between the prototype and the target event. He adds that prototypes should not be as broad and sweeping as to be meaningless, nor so specific as to generate false expectations that the prototype will precisely mirror the target event. The use of precedents and prototypes is not unusual in psychology: research in Antarctica and other spaceflight-analogous environments has advanced our understanding of psychosocial adaptation to spaceflight, despite differences between the two environments (Bishop, 2013).

The instant crisis model
Without doubt, the best-known prototype for contact is Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast on Halloween of 1938. This theatrical radio play was presented as a live news broadcast of Martians landing in New Jersey, vanquishing the militia, and advancing inexorably on Manhattan. People were frightened, and newspapers had a field day claiming that widespread panic resulted. The broadcast inspired one of the earliest field studies in social psychology (Cantril, 1940).

Yet newspaper accounts of the War of the Worlds incident were overstated (Harrison, 1997). Most listeners did not take the broadcast at face value, and some, alarmed by the opening lines, conducted reality checks and were relieved to discover, for example, that other stations were maintaining their normal programming. Given perceptions of the situation, some illustrations of panic were descriptions of reasonable self-protective and even altruistic actions: extricating a fiancée from the danger zone, sealing doors and windows to retard the seepage of poison gas, and reporting to armories for duty. Decades later, a conceptual replication based on a fictionalised account of a reactor meltdown in Denmark frightened about eight percent of the listening audience and about one percent responded behaviorally (Rosengren et al., 1975). Nobody panicked, but media accounts spread the impression that panic was intense and widespread and that the police became dysfunctional.

There had been earlier prototypes, such as a masterful hoax by the New York Sun in 1835 that convinced readers that civilised bat-like humanoids were cavorting amidst pleasant surroundings on the Moon (Goodman, 2008) and motivated illusions of artificial canals on Mars (Sheehan, 1988). But Welles’ broadcast was fresh in mind in when a report was prepared by the Brookings Institution for the US Congress on the peaceful uses of outer space (Committee on Science and Astronautics, 1961). Although the report focused on topics such as communications and weather satellites and space probes, it also made brief reference to the possibility of discovering extraterrestrial intelligence. Panelists could imagine ‘our’ astronauts meeting ‘their’ astronauts, but also acknowledged that contact could come about through microwave observation. The report expressed apprehensions about public reactions and urged further studies of how events unfold when different cultures first meet one another.

The culture encounter model
Under the culture encounter model the arrival of Europeans in the New World, the rapid spread of colonialism throughout the world, and the relentless subjugation of Native American Indians become prototypes for understanding reactions to extraterrestrials. Because extraterrestrial civilisations are expected to be vastly older than our own, they are granted technological (but not necessarily moral) superiority. As history shows technological inequality poses a risk of subjugation, exploitation, dehumanisation and traumatisation.

James F. Strange describes how technologically disadvantaged cultures are likely to respond to first contact (Strange, 2007). Initially, indigenous people are likely to be baffled and confused, because the indigenous peoples have no idea what they are seeing. Are sailing ships on the horizon a new kind of fish, swimming gods, or floating houses? Curiosity is useful, because it helps them learn more. Soon they begin responding to the visitors on the basis of assigned identities. That is, they think about the visitors in terms of entities that they have encountered, cultural stories, and myths. They may wonder if they are witnessing the arrival of demons or the return of the gods. In first encounters assigned identities are mistaken identities, since they are based on familiar ideas and imagination rather than reliable knowledge. Once assigned identities are formed they are supported by selective perception and biased assimilation.

Biases and inaccuracies in standard versions of history are a significant problem for this model. Many standard history texts have been written to flatter leaders, and build national morale by denigrating opponents (Restall, 2003). The influences of allies, turncoats and lucky breaks tend to get lost; deceitful behaviours and atrocities are ignored or downplayed; and the true cost of victory is hidden. Still, a skilled ethnographer focusing on a geographically and temporally limited and carefully defined first encounter could carry this model forward. From a risk analysis and disaster management perspective it would be premature to discard this model (Neal, 2014), yet it is often downplayed because astronomers consider physical contact unlikely.

The Information diffusion model
The information diffusion model is based on the dispersal of ideas over time and across cultures (Dick, 2013). Sample prototypes include the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions, the exportation of the Arabic numerical system to Europe (Dick, 2013), the ‘diffusion of African-American musical influences and slang language into dominant American culture’ (Strange, 2007, p.239), and the spread of literacy and popular interest in science in late Tsarist Russia. History provides a rich source of research material. The emphasis is less on instantaneous impact than on the long-term infiltration and assimilation of ideas into the receiving culture. It could take centuries before the full impact of contact is known.

The SETI model
There are at least three close approximations of SETI detections. The first two prototypes, from 1965 and 1967 respectively, were the discovery of quasars and pulsars. In each case, unexpected findings led to speculation that they were intelligently controlled interstellar beacons. In the discovery of pulsars, four similar highly perplexing objects were found and labeled LGM-1 to LGM-4, with LGM standing for Little Green Men (Penny, 2013). These appellations turned from funny to worrisome as the extraterrestrial hypotheses remained standing while competing hypotheses fell. One researcher considered burning the results; perhaps later, when people were better prepared, another astronomer would rediscover these beacons and reveal their true nature to the public (Penny, 2013). Both quasars and pulsars are natural objects, but internal discussions on how to manage the developing situation informed broader discussions of how to manage the verification and news of an actual detection (Penny, 2013).

In late 1998, on his Coast to Coast talk radio show, commentator Art Bell announced that an anonymous amateur astronomer had intercepted an extraterrestrial transmission. The story was picked up by the BBC and gained international attention. Scientists, including Seth Shostak, strongly suspected that the detection was a hoax, and attempts to confirm the discovery failed (Shostak, 2009). The story persisted (dwindling in importance) for several days before it was refuted. Afterwards, Shostak expressed vexation and gratitude, the latter because it ‘added a modicum of real experience to the endless theorizing about what would happen in the case of a “hit”’ (Shostak, 2009, pp.245–246). There are several reasons to expect that reactions to an orthodox SETI detection – that is, of a carrier wave or ‘dial tone’ – will be muted (Harrison, 2011). However, conditions could change rapidly if a specific message was ascribed to the transmission, and the media and interpretation industries gained momentum.

Culture and worldviews as organising concepts
Historians and anthropologists have led the way in most discussions of the effects of the discovery of extraterrestrials on humans. There are many topics in psychology that could contribute to the overall endeavour: anthropomorphic, ethnocentric and egocentric thinking; attribution of motives and intentions; person perception; paranoia and pronoia; defense mechanisms, intergroup relations; rumour transmission, and much more (Baird 1987; Harrison, 1997, 2007; Harrison & Elms, 1990; Neal, 2014). The current lack of involvement on the part of a profession that once fought to distinguish itself from religion and the occult is understandable. Today, researchers separate openness to the possibility of extraterrestrial life, which is not paranormal, from the belief that they are here, which is paranormal in the sense that it is intermingled with other paranormal beliefs (such as astrology and reincarnation), magical thinking, and deficient reality testing (Bainbridge, 2011; Dagnall et al., 2011). Psychologists’ interests need no longer be limited to purported alien encounters and abduction experiences, conspiracy thinking, and flying saucer religions. Today it is perfectly acceptable for psychologists to think about imaginary beings – or at least, how other people think about them and the possible consequences of this.

Anthropologists rally around ‘culture’ as an organising concept for their work. Human encounters with aliens can be construed as meetings of radically different cultures, perhaps leading to ‘culture shock on steroids’. Psychologists might consider worldviews as an organising concept, not in the common vaguely descriptive sense of the word but as a psychological construct with structural and dynamic properties that are amenable to empirical research (Koltko-Rivera, 2004). In psychology, worldviews are cognitive frameworks that structure our understanding of reality and give us the tools we need to navigate in an uncertain and potentially dangerous environment (Janoff-Bullman, 1992; Zimbardo, 1999). They set and enforce standards of truth and falsehood, frame questions and answers, and influence reality testing. Worldviews rest on self-serving assumptions that create the illusion of living in a safe, understandable, and manageable world where we can feel good about ourselves (Janoff-Bullman, 1992). Threats come from people who are not ‘like us’, information that runs contrary to our understanding about how things work, and from traumatic and anomalous experiences (Zimbardo, 1999). Discontinuity Theory (Zimbardo, 1999) and the Shattered Assumptions Theory of Trauma (Janoff-Bullman, 1992) identify threats to worldviews and how the activation and failure of ego and worldview defenses lead to a variety of psychological and social pathologies, from simple denial to schizophrenia, from own group favouritism to war. Real or ascribed alien worldviews could threaten our foundational beliefs about physical, social, and psychological realities.

What might be the effects on human worldviews if their technology seemed liked magic, if their science contradicted our science, if their philosophy undermined our religious beliefs, if their morality struck us as abhorrent, or if everything they said or did seemed nonsensical? What if, to borrow from science fiction and horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, we inferred that the universe is not as nicely organised as we like to think (Colavito, 2005)? The mind does not do well under prolonged conditions of uncertainty and confusion. Of course, extraterrestrials and humans could have compatible or even synergistic ideas (Dick, 2013). Still, psychological worldview theory and research, pegged to a few distinctive scenarios such as prototypes described above, might ease us into a post-contact era.

If and when the extraterrestrial intelligence is discovered there may be few details about what has been found: who they are, what they want, and what the discovery means for us. To satisfy our curiosity and control anxiety we are likely to draw on preconceptions, expectations, attitudes and prejudices, and then seek validation from like-minded others. Looking to ‘inner space’ is likely to be as important as turning our gaze to outer space, and problems that result will be largely of our own making.

- Albert A. Harrison was a Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis, who explored the societal ramifications of astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). We were sad to hear that he passed away shortly after submitting this article, which we publish here unedited in his honour.  


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