Monday, June 20, 2011

The Psychology of First Contact

Contact with extraterrestrials is more than just a scientific or social challenge. There will be psychological challenges for humans. Much would depend on the type of contact. The most profound impact would be in a Direct First Contact event, where humans interact directly with extraterrestrials. There’s not much written on the psychology of First Contact. One of the better books is "The Inner Limits of Outer Space" by John Baird. 
The psychologist posits that social communication with aliens will be modeled, at least from our perspective, on our own social interaction. No surprise there, modeling our behavior on what we have come to expect in human relationships is our only option- we simply don’t have any other frame of reference. For humans, and for the aliens, the relationship will be based on how each party views the other and perceives relative intelligence, social rank and knowledge.

Much of Baird’s book explores SETI based communication with extraterrestrials. He was part of a NASA study group on the issue in the 1970’s. However, his work does have application to Direct First Contact as well.

It has been expected that in a Direct First Contact scenario the visiting aliens would be more technologically advanced, which makes sense considering that we do not have the technology to visit them and by the very nature of the scenario they do have the technology to visit us. This would immediately place the relationship in a type of imbalance.

Baird suggests that while many scientists have used technology to set up possible comparison scales to extraterrestrials, a much better scale would be to determine how they think and how similar that thinking is to the human mentality. It is a bold suggestion and one that makes sense. Sure, technology will be a huge part of the discussion, but that very discussion rests on a foundation of communication and interaction. If the aliens think very differently from us the relationship will be harder to form. If they think more like us it will be easier. Science is only one way to compare civilizations. We would have a much stronger bond if they had some appreciation of the role of art and music in our society. If they have similar pursuits there will be a connection, perhaps one even stronger than science, due to the more personal nature of art and music and the deep connection of those activities to our culture.

There is a tendency for humans to view everything with an anthropocentric bias. Many prominent researchers have been arguing that our narrow definition of what could form biological life could interfere with our search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Baird was one of the first to broach the subject in the 1980s. It applies to Direct First Contact as well, as our focus on an anthropocentric view of communication could be extremely limiting in how we interact with alien intelligence.

Baird suggests that one way of helping us understand an extraterrestrial intelligence is by examining how humans perceive intelligence. Researchers say that humans have many different types of intelligence and no one measure is enough to judge the sum. Baird uses an interesting comparison in this argument, taking a look at how adults view the intelligence of a child. The very notion of growing up and gaining in knowledge is a given, but does it really make one more intelligent? You can argue that humans become more set in their ways as adults, less playful and less excited by new ideas. We can see those child-like attributes in some of the most successful older adults: a constant need for play with ideas.

Probably the biggest take-away from Baird’s book is the idea that First Contact would be an extremely complicated relationship from many perspectives. We would have to be prepared to take several steps back from our usual way of thinking and take in perspectives we have not imagined. The danger is that some humans will not want to spend the time or energy to consider such things. That could lead to knee-jerk reactions based on anthropocentric fears and judgments. If it’s simply a problem for the man or woman on the street that’s one thing, but what is the likelihood that our political leaders would be able to rise above this base level thinking?

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