Psychology professor presents findings on the possibility of extraterrestrial life

Wednesday, November 13, 2019 - 9:28pm

Dr. Michael Varnum, an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University, discusses the possible reactions of the public to the discovery of extraterrestrial life at the Chemistry Building Wednesday evening

Dr. Michael Varnum, an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University, discusses the possible reactions of the public to the discovery of extraterrestrial life at the Chemistry Building Wednesday evening Buy this photo
Michael Bagazinski/Daily

Michael Varnum, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University,presented his research on the findings of potential extraterrestrial life Wednesday night in the Chemistry Building.Varnum began his discussion on human reactions to the potential existence of extraterrestrial life by posing a series of questions.

“For ages, humanity has looked into the sky and asked itself a question: are we alone?” Varnum asked. “Or is there someone or something else out there in the universe? … What’s it going to mean, or what’s it going to do to humanity to find life out of the Earth?”

Varnum explained the data his research team analyzed. He said the data showed on average, more positive than negative emotions concerning the existence of extraterrestrial life.  

“One participant says that I am very curious and want to know what they found and everything about it,” Varnum said. “We ran these free responses through the software program, looking for positive and negative emotions, and in all of these cases, we see evidence of far more positive than negative effect.” 

Varnum said some groups of people with similar cultural backgrounds or personality traits tend to have more negative reactions towards the discovery of extraterrestrial life than others.

“We found three that were fairly significant and consistent,” Varnum said. “Folks who were high in trait, disease, and avoidance, tended to have more negative responses to extraterrestrial life. People who were more religious, also, some of them were more negative, and people who endorsed more conspiratorial thinking were more likely to think this development might be more negative than positive.”

Varnum says he isn’t done studying the question he posed at the beginning of his discussion and wants to expand his study to cover more regions of the world.

“I think there’s some outstanding questions here that weren’t answered by these studies,” Varnum said. “Most of the countries we looked at, right, were in Europe or in America. And we are in the process right now of trying to expand the sample. We’re gathering some data in Korea as we speak. But it would be nice to get data in places in Africa, the Middle East, in the broader swath of the world’s cultures.”

Varnum’s discussion of his research findings was followed by an interdisciplinary conversation on the topic of life with Varnum, David Baker, U-M associate professor of philosophy, and Edwin Bergin, U-M Professor of Astronomy and chair of the department.  

Bergin said he believes extraterrestrial life definitely exists but will be hard to prove in the near future.

“Statistically speaking, there’s got to be other species out there, there’s no way there aren’t,” Bergin said. “But it would be great to know it in a kind of gut way. It would be great to have that reinforced and be certain of it. I am going to be the scientist here. We’re not going to be getting there anytime soon. We’re going to have to get to Mars. We probe around, and we’re probably going to find just dirt.”

Baker also discussed the implications of finding extraterrestrial life and how it will allow us to discover more about biology.

“If the life we find is very much different from life on Earth, then we have discovered that life can take lots of different forms… but if we find something else, that the one other type of life that we find elsewhere in the universe seems to be pretty similar to us, then we’re learning okay you know, evolution pretty much works the same way everywhere,” Baker said.

LSA sophomore Jack Berens said he believes extraterrestrial life exists but will be hard to discover in the near future. However, when it is discovered, he said it will have enormous implications in our lives.

“I’m like 99.9 percent sure that it exists,” Berens said. “I just think that space is way too big, the speed of light is probably way too slow in our observable universe.”