A recent study sought to understand the psychological reasons behind why people believe in extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) and why these imagined extraterrestrials often mirror human attributes. One hypothesis was that this belief might arise from feelings of loneliness or a need for closure. But the study’s results challenge such presumptions.
The study, involving 130 participants, primarily university students, aimed to explore if beliefs in extraterrestrial life and intelligence correlate with personal feelings of aloneness or the need for closure. The research also looked at religiosity – considering that belief in higher beings, terrestrial or otherwise – might serve as psychological tools to manage existential challenges.
The findings were published in the journal Discover Psychology.
Contrary to initial hypotheses, the results did not find a consistent correlation between feelings of aloneness or the need for closure and belief in ETI.
Niklas Döbler, MSc, the lead researcher of the study from the Department of General Psychology and Methodology at the University of Bamberg, shared: “Although the notion of life elsewhere in the universe is mesmerising, contact chances are low. Even if we find them, the astronomical distances diminish any chance of reciprocal contact.
“Our idea was that belief in extraterrestrial life and intelligence may be associated with individual loneliness. However, we found no evidence for our hypothesis. At the same time, the idea of a vast and empty universe may be unbearable to those who have a high need for closure.”
The Drake equation, which calculates the probable number of technologically advanced civilisations in the Milky Way galaxy, was also considered. Participants showcased an intuitive grasp of this equation’s probabilities, though their interpretations varied widely.
While anthropomorphism, the attribution of human traits or emotions to non-human entities, was evident in how participants visualised extraterrestrials, the reasons behind this remained elusive. Notably, participants typically depicted extraterrestrials in terms related to physical appearance and neutrality towards humans.
The study does come with its limitations. Döbler pointed out: “We must point out that instruments used and employed sample size may be insufficient.” The chosen sample size, predominantly university students, may not represent broader societal beliefs. Additionally, a major portion of participants believed in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, thereby reducing the diversity of views.
Despite these constraints, the study provides essential insights into our inherent views on life beyond our planet. A significant takeaway is that human beliefs about ETI might not necessarily spring from a feeling of loneliness or a need to combat the vast emptiness of space. Instead, such beliefs might be influenced by various individual and societal factors, including education, religion, and cultural narratives.
Döbler added: “We will continue to investigate the psychological aspects of the Search for extraterrestrial intelligence, both empirically and theoretically. Real-life application of our research partially hinges on whether a first contact will ever happen. The future will tell!”
The interplay of human psychology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) cannot be ignored, especially when funding and public interest in SETI endeavours depend largely on public opinion. By understanding how and why we perceive extraterrestrials in particular ways, we can better engage with the public on space exploration initiatives.
While the mysteries of the cosmos remain largely uncharted, this study reminds us that humans primarily seek meaningful connections on Earth rather than in the vast expanse of space. However, should contact with extraterrestrial life be established, the opportunity for a profound cosmic relationship could present itself. Until then, our quest for understanding continues, both towards the stars and within our minds.