I’ve been reading an excellent book on the subject of extraterrestrial First Contact. “After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life” is written by Dr. Albert Harrison, a psychology professor from California. He has worked with the Contact organization for many years and taken part in the Cultures of the Imagination Conference at NASA Ames Research Center.
Dr. Harrison examines the extraterrestrial intelligence topic from a wide range of angles in the 1997 book. Most of his ideas address SETI based scenarios, which is logical since interception or reception of an electronic communication by active scientific search is the most likely form of First Contact. As a psychologist Harrison delves into human and societal reaction to First Contact in a way that most writers merely gloss over. He makes it clear that First Contact could have a profound impact on our civilization. But he also notes that the type of contact, and if that contact develops into an actual relationship through communication, will decide to what degree the discovery of ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence) has an impact here on Earth.
The human response, as related by Harrison, will have much to do with hardwired reactions, psychological programming and cultural conditioning. In determining what “they” are like we will use our own frame of reference, utilizing anthropomorphism to try and understand our visitors. I appreciate the emphasis Harrison places on first impressions. An unfavorable first impression would lead us to respond defensively. Harrison states that the media and in particular the news media would have a huge role in how the revelation of ETI is received by the public. This is especially true with a SETI based discovery.
But what of the extraterrestrials themselves? Harrison explores how they might approach humans. They could be cautious, either out of safety or some scientific reasoning. Under this scenario they would observe first and contact once they feel ready, if at all. They could of course use deceit. This is something I have called “Dirty Scenarios”. The tough part of deciphering deceit with an extraterrestrial is that they will, in all likelihood, be very different from us. Deceit is something that is hard to predict even among people of the same culture here on Earth. How are we supposed to determine possible deceit with an alien being? Harrison seems to come down on the welcoming-caution side of the fence. Welcome our new neighbors openly, but be prepared in the background to respond to any threat. It would be foolish to trust any visiting civilization completely, especially in the first days and months after First Contact.
Human response will be determined by a number of psychological factors. Harrison says that threat, as a perception of danger, and stress as the demands place on the emotions and body, will be two immediate concerns. Coping is the reaction to these responses. The assembling of information, leading to problem solving and the preservation of freedom of action, will be essential for humans to cope with First Contact.
Threat, stress and coping would be factors in reaction to a SETI based discovery. They would be much greater factors in the response to a Direct First Contact event, such as the one I propose. The reason for this is immediacy. Direct First Contact brings with it an immediate threat. SETI based communication contact does not necessarily have that immediate nature.
Harrison examines news media coverage to discuss how the portrayal of aliens will play a major role in how they are received. This is important in SETI contact scenarios and perhaps more so for Direct First Contact. An extraterrestrial researcher would want to plan a Direct First Contact event very carefully to prevent a “fight or flight” reaction by humans. Harrison points to research by Carolyn Aldwin. She looked at human response to natural disasters, providing five characteristics which make them unique situations for research: there is little to no warning, a short time-line, involvement of many people, an extreme threat, and no control over the situation by an individual. These would certainly apply to a Direct First Contact event. Aldwin reports that people react in several ways. The first would be disbelief and expressions of the unreality of the situation. The second is to be dazed and confused. Even first responder (police and fire) judgment and reaction can be impaired. The next step is cooperation between people involved in the event. The final is disillusionment over the lack of government response to the disaster. This can certainly be seen after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
The key for me is the cooperative reaction phase. It would be important, in a First Contact situation, to move the public through reactions of unreality and confusion quickly. It is in the cooperative phase that a consensus could be built. First Contact must be planned is such a way that allows people join together in response to the revelation of ETI. People need to have an outlet and feel like they are taking charge of the situation. The best way to do this is to actively encourage the public to contact governmental leaders and ask them to support efforts to strengthen the United Nations and a strong science-based response. People will want to respond to this new challenge and human civilization will desperately need the help in putting together a unified, organized voice of welcome.
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