Varnum and colleagues asked about 500 online volunteers — all in the United States — to describe how they would react if they learned scientists had discovered alien microbes. Varnum’s team analyzed each response using software that determined the fraction of words indicating positive emotion, such as “nice,” and negative emotion, like “worried.” The program also scanned for reward- and risk-focused words, such as “benefit” and “danger.”
MARTIAN MICROBES In 1996, a Martian meteorite (top) made headlines when researchers reported it might have harbored microbial alien life (bottom) — a claim that has not found widespread support among the scientific community.
People generally used more positive and reward-oriented words than negative and risk-oriented ones to describe their anticipated reactions. The same held true when participants were asked how they expected everyone else to take the news.