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How Would Humans React to Extraterrestrials?

Earlier this month, the FBI uploaded hundreds of archived reports about UFO sightings and investigations to its new "Vault." (Other topics in the Vault include the FBI's fight with the KKK and the 1997 shooting of rapper Notorious B.I.G.) Though the most famous documents, such as the Hottel memo, have been publicly available for some time, they make for entertaining reading, and, somewhat inevitably, the documents have provided fuel to the UFO existence fire. But let's suspend science for a moment and ask: if UFOs did somehow manage to contact us, how would we react?

In a paper originally presented at the 48th International Astronautical Congress in 1997, Douglas Vakoch of SETI and Yuh-Shiaow Lee of National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan surveyed groups of American and Chinese undergraduate students in an attempt to "to predict beliefs about [extraterrestrial intelligence] based on personal characteristics and beliefs of the respondents...[including] a person's religious beliefs, level of optimism, level of alienation and degree of anthropocentrism." (The first sentence of the abstract--"If we ever receive a message from extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), the societal impact may be significant."--wins this week's award for excellence in the field of understatement.) Vakoch and Lee found, among other results, that "less religious Americans" were not only more likely to believe in extraterrestrials, but were also "more likely to think that ETI would be benevolent and that we should reply." In addition, "it was unusual for Americans to see ETI as simultaneously 'good guys' and 'bad guys'"; the impact was either seen as positive or negative, while Chinese students were more likely to think of contact with ETI as both a positive and a negative. In both cultures, "more alienated subjects were more likely to think that ETI would be hostile." There was no report on what the reaction would be if the ETI looked like the aliens on The Simpsons.