How will humankind react to the discovery of life off Earth?

Through this pilot, we are given the opportunity to explore the many aspects of potential human reactions to alien life. In our initial work we conducted the first systematic empirical research testing how we might react to such a discovery, finding that such reactions are overwhelmingly more positive than negative. We are currently assessing whether cultures differ in their reactions to extraterrestrial life and exploring whether reactions vary as a function of the type of alien life we might find. Pilot 5 plans to conduct a series of experiments and to produce a body of knowledge that will help humanity prepare for our seemingly inevitable contact with the extraterrestrial.

While both scientists and the public at large have tended to think about the impact of discovering extraterrestrial life through preparing to encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, it seems much more likely that humanity will directly encounter alien life first through some form more akin to microorganisms. This in turn raises the likelihood that extraterrestrial life will not announce itself but rather will be announced — through a cloud of science and policy actions that are already acknowledged to be shifting and fraught with challenges. Through a series of continuing behavioral experiments, historical analysis of analogous scientific paradigm shifts, and videos and public events, we will set the stage for discussions with NASA and other governmental and private organizations to plan for a future in which we learn that we are not alone in the universe.

Key Accomplishments

  • First paper published based on an II pilot, showing that humans react generally positively to the idea of microbial life. Published in Frontiers in Psychology (

  • Held a press briefing and an academic symposium at the AAAS annual meeting in Austin, Texas to discuss research results on how humans might react to life discovered off Earth.

  • Worldwide media coverage of our initial findings including The Washington Post, The Atlantic, National Geographic, The Guardian, USA Today, Scientific American, Science Magazine, Radio Sweden, Telemundo, and Der Spiegel.

  • Consulted for producers of “Another Life,” a forthcoming Netflix Original Series based on the premise of the discovery of an alien artifact.

  • Introduced two new courses that take an interdisciplinary approach to examining the question: "How will humankind react when life is found off of the earth?" - BIS 402: Life Beyond Earth, and a School of Public Policy Capstone course featuring reactions to extraterrestrial life as the topic - PAF 400.


Michael Varnum Pilot Lead, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology

Daniel Sarewitz Professor of Science and Society, School for the Future of Innovation in Society

Jung Yul Kwon Graduate Student, Culture and Ecology Lab

Hannah Bercovici Graduate Student, School of Earth and Space Exploration

Margaretha Bentley Lecturer and Coordinator of SPA Online Program, School of Public Affairs

J.P. Nelson Graduate Student, School for the Future of Innovation in Society

Amanda Arnold Executive Director, Federal Research Relations, ASU