SETI and Human Behavior

A Human Response to a ETI Signal Detection

The factors that influence human responses include attributes of individuals (for example, gender, race or ethnic affiliation, religion, level of education) and attributes of the environmental backdrop (including nuances of languages used to describe events, whether outlooks are optimistic or pessimistic, belief systems, economic situations, cultural stores of image, and frames of reference). The reactions of individuals and groups depend upon interplays among factors, in ways that are not known or presently predictable.

Reactions to a detection (or non-detection) can range from indifference through mild positive or negative curiosity, through millennial enthusiasm or catastrophist anxiety, to full scale pronoia or paranoia. Most individual reactions to an announcement would include active expanded searches for additional information, with significant coalescences of like-minded individuals in support (or opposition) groups. A few reactions would probably be irrationally extreme or even violent.

Education is identified as a factor that correlates with positive attitudes toward SETI. Research is recommended that enables us to better understand factors that underlie various responses and to identify activities that increase the likelihood that responses will be well-informed and even positive. One promising fact-finding technique is to pose specific alternative ETI detection scenarios, then poll the public on likely responses to those scenarios.


  1. Many cultures have traditions of depicting strangers, aliens, and ETI, and have different emotional responses to specific terms used within those traditions. Analyzing these terms (and perhaps coining new ones) will enable SETI participants to anticipate and preempt possible negative responses by adopting accurate language that is free of unexpected shadings of value.
  2. There is need for research on popular public visions, perceptions, and image of ETI's, and on cultural conceptions of science and technology.
  3. The preliminary approach that we have adopted in this Report identifies separate variables that motivate behavior, but does not specify the ways in which interactions among the variables influence behavior. Studies are needed to learn how these various elements interact.
  4. We should try to identify and clarify the responses of various peoples to the Apollo and Viking missions (activities that were remotely analogous to NASA's HRMS research).
  5. We should identify groups with unusual abilities to affect policy whose members might require better information about SETI. Can better understanding of SETI encourage their members to view these endeavors positively (or more positively)?
  6. SETI researchers (or their designees) should identify individual and institutional responses that are viewed by the public as positive and achievable in the event of a signal detection, then participate in programs of education and information that will enable people to respond in those ways.
  7. SETI researchers or their designees should make greater use of popular media, including movies, computer games, and popular music, to present SETI and ETI themes. These avenues could greatly increase public interest and exposure.
  8. SETI researchers should identify, assist, and inform national and international organizations concerned with SETI-related issues.
  9. SETI researchers should affiliate with "soft" science researchers through such bodies as the World Ethnographic Union. These relationships could bring relevant questions of behavior to the attention of those workers, and draw upon multiple disciplinary resources for understanding those variables whose effects on human reactions are unclear.
  10. The creation of a panel of expert behavioral scientists as a "reaction team" should be considered. Such a team should be available for advice and help in situations where information about an ETI signal seems to cause unusual disruption of normal patterns of life.
  11. Means should be devised for including the perspectives and inputs of members of non-American, non-White societies in the future.
  12. Great care must be taken that methodological assumptions are not made into metaphysical assumptions in describing SETI activities. We should not assume, as a matter of dogma, that ETI civilizations are anxious to communicate with us, nor that all human beings are anxious to communicate with them.