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Will ET Be Hostile? Alienated People Are More Likely to Say 'Yes'

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Will ET Be Hostile? Alienated People Are More Likely to Say 'Yes'


by: Doug Vakoch   SETI Institute


Astronomer Frank Drake, the Father of SETI, has argued that ET will likely be altruistic, rather than malevolent. Drake reasons that if extraterrestrials are hostile, then their civilizations won't last very long, and were unlikely to make contact with them. Only extraterrestrials with a long-lasting, stable society will be around long enough to be detected by our SETI programs.


And yet, extraterrestrials we encounter in movies such as Alien and Independence Day are certainly not friendly. But is the possibility of malevolent aliens really just a matter of overworked imaginations in Hollywood? And to the extent that these images are held by people in general, might concerns over hostile aliens say more about ourselves than about ET?


Recently, the SETI Institute and conducted an informal survey of Internet users to answer just that question. The exercise was in part a demonstration of the sort of research methods that social scientists use to further our understanding of SETI. Indeed, all of the standard caveats that apply to Internet polls apply to this survey as well. For example, the fact that the poll was conducted through  the web site means that people who participated are more likely to have pro-space attitudes than the average Internet user. Nevertheless, when the numbers were all in, we found a very strong connection between peoples beliefs about extraterrestrials and their feelings about how meaningful life is. What makes the results even more compelling is that they match the findings of an earlier study conducted under more stringent testing conditions.


When someone is confronted with ambiguous information, what he or she makes of the information can sometimes say a lot about the person. That's the basis for what psychologists call projective tests. One classic example of a projective test is the Rorschach. In this test, people are asked what they see in a series of inkblots. When skilled examiners study the patterns and themes in a persons responses to the inkblots, they can sometimes begin to understand how the examinee sees the world.


If the event that some day our radio telescopes pick up signs of intelligent life beyond Earth, its unlikely that that the signals will contain a clear, unambiguous message. For starters, current search strategies look for strong artificial signals, rather than searching for small variations in these signals that may tell us about the knowledge and views of alien civilizations. And even if we do detect information-rich signals, it could take considerable time to

understand what extraterrestrials are trying to say. Thus, its likely that well know that ET exists long before we have any clear-cut evidence of what they might be trying to tell us.


In the face of missing information, however, people have a tendency to fill in the blanks. Even if people may not be sure what ET is like from scientific evidence, they will tend to form opinions, in part based on their habitual ways of seeing life.


In our Internet survey, we tested the hypothesis that if people feel like the world is cold and cruel, they're more likely than other people to imagine extraterrestrials as being cold and cruel as well. Thus, we set up the survey so we could measure two things. First, to what extent do people feel "alienated," and second, how hostile do these

people imagine extraterrestrials would be?


For starters, we reviewed the research literature in psychology and sociology to find an existing method to assess how alienated people feel. The measure we chose, the Margins of Society Alienation Scale, was described by Robert Travis in the journal Social Indicators Research in 1993. This scale taps peoples feelings of alienation by

asking them to respond to the following statements:


- I feel all alone these days.

- My whole world feels like its falling apart.

- I wish I were somebody important.

- Its hard for me to tell just what is right and wrong these days.

- I dont like to live by societys rules.

- I often feel discriminated against.

- Ill never find the right person to care enough about me.


While no single one of these statements can capture a persons overall feelings of alienation, as a group of statements, they do a quite good job. We asked each participant in the survey to indicate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with each statement, which provided us with a quantitative method to identify people who were feeling very alienated, those who didnt feel alienated at all, and those who fell somewhere between those extremes.


Similarly, to assess peoples beliefs about how hostile aliens are likely to be, we used a set of statements that psychologist Yuh-shiow Lee and I developed to measure just that. Specifically, we asked people who completed the survey to imagine that we had received a radio signal with a message from intelligent life in outer space. They were then asked to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with each of the following statements on a six point scale. If they agreed completely, they were to rate the item a "6". If they disagreed completely, they gave the statement a "1." And if they were somewhere in between, mildly or moderately agreeing or disagreeing with the

item, they were to choose an appropriate number. Here are the statements that they rated:


- ETs are probably looking for planets they can take over for themselves.

- We should not reply to the message from ETs because they might be hostile.

- ETs would probably look at humans like we are nothing more than animals that belong in their zoos.

- Humans would probably not be able to understand the message from ETs because humans and ETs are just too different.

- If we reply to the message from ETs, they might come to Earth and take over our world.

- We should not believe what the message says, because the ETs may be lying.

- ETs would probably want to make humans their slaves.

- The message from ETs may contain a hidden message that could be harmful to humans.


Again, we tallied up peoples total scores for all the items in the scale, then calculated their average score for the scale. Thus, each respondent provided an average ratinga number between 1 and 6of how hostile they imagined extraterrestrials would be. People with average ratings near 6 thought extraterrestrials would be very hostile. People

with ratings near 1 were not concerned at all about ET malevolence.


The critical question is whether more alienated people are more likely to view ETs as hostile. As we hypothesized, the answer is "yes". To understand this better, lets compare the responses of the most alienated people and the least alienated people. As the graphs to the right show, people who dont feel at all alienated were very unlikely to view ET as hostile (bottom graph).


On these graphs, the average ratings of ET hostility are shown across the bottom. Since we are looking at the average ratings of several items that tap attitudes about ET hostility, many peoples ratings fall between even numbers. The height of the bars shows how many respondents had scores in the corresponding range. For example, 109 of the least alienated people had average ET hostility scores between 1 and 1.5. In contrast, only 15 of the most alienated people thought extraterrestrials would be this harmless.


As we examine the graphs as a whole, we can see a strong pattern. First, for both groups, most people thought extraterrestrials would pose no great danger. If we look at the number of people who fall above and below 3.5 on the hostility scalewhich is the "neutral point" between 1 and 6we see a much higher percentage of people who think that extraterrestrial motivations will be malevolent when we look at the group of alienated people. Fully 20 percent of the alienated people score above 3.5 on the ET hostility scale, as compared to a mere 4 percent of the non-alienated people. In fact, not a single person in the non-alienated group scored above 5 on the ET hostility

scale. The pattern is clear: people who feel alienated are much more likely to be concerned that ET has evil intentions.


These figures show the differences between the most and the least alienated people among the 3000 respondents to our survey. But what about all the restthe majority who fell somewhere between these extremes? Isnt it arbitrary to look at only the most and least alienated people?


Indeed it is. When we look at every one of the respondents, not just the extreme cases, we see the same pattern. Of course, its always possible that the patterns we see in studies like this are due to chance, but with some basic statistics, we can even measure the likelihood of that. As it turns out, the pattern we detected between peoples level of alienation and their views about ET hostility is such a strong pattern that the probability it occurred due to chance alone is less than one in a trillion. In short, the pattern we found is really there, and not just an artifact of the study.


If some day SETI succeeds in detecting a signal from extraterrestrials, we will be faced with the frustration of not

knowing as much about the senders of the signal as we would like. As with all scientific experiments, it will be vital for us to sift through the data, always careful not to jump to hasty conclusions. By better understanding how our own biases might creep into our interpretation of the data, we will be better prepared to remain as objective as possible. Humankind will face many important decisions upon detecting ET, such as whether or not we should reply. It would be unfortunate indeed if those decisions were based more on personal prejudice than on well-reasoned analysis.


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