Finding Humanity in Alien Eyes

What science fiction films can tell us about protecting against genocide

Posted Nov 01, 2013

Scientists abhor anecdote. It represents, in our minds, an 'n of 1', which renders it statistically useless. As psychologists, even intuition is our enemy. We know too well that intuition is passed through cognitive filters that have the potential to add unconscious biases onto the output. But anecdote and intuition, these critical components of what makes up our 'folk wisdom', are also critical components of science. Without them, our theories would be lifeless. So the relationship between science and folk wisdom is, as they say, 'complicated.' Which is the perfect set-up for a good love story. The one that I'm thinking of happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

I am a bit of a sci-fi junkie. I also research intergroup conflict. This pair of interests go together quite nicely: films depicting conflict between humans and non-humans are nearly as plentiful as the stars. At their highest, these films allow us to examine moral ambiguities in the safe confines of an imaginary realm. While this provides me with great entertainment, I also have a hunch that film may be able to give us insights into the forces that help drive intergroup conflict and genocide, so that we can best determine how to prevent them.

Consider, for example, how filmmakers manipulate our feelings towards an alien race. At one end of the spectrum is ET, who the filmmaker wants us to immediately care for, and at the other end are movies like Alien and Independence Day, where the aliens' intents are unambiguously evil. The breadth of empathy that these films are able to evoke, from deep empathic concern towards ET that renders movie-goers (like the child me) to blubbering masses at the suggestion of harm towards a single alien, to outright cheers when faced with the reality of the complete genocide of an alien species. Of course, some of this comes from the relationship that is established with the aliens: as with human conflicts, we would certainly expect empathy to differ if the aliens mean to kill us than if they just want to cuddle. But also similar to human intergroup conflict, I think that we can be set up to empathize (or not) long before any intergroup relationship exists.

One of the films that did this best, to my mind, was District 9. The title 'District 9' refers to the 1970s Apartheid era, when the mostly 'colored' district 6 in Cape Town was forcibly evacuated and many of the houses razed by the White population there. In this film, we're introduced to an alien species that resemble 7-foot tall crawfish. They come apparently as refugees in a massive ship, which mysteriously appears over the skies of South Africa. The movie becomes a clever narrative about the roots of prejudice, as a country in the midst of healing from racial divide, societal inequality and segregation finds itself faced with a new 'out-group' of poor and needy refugees.

The challenge that the filmmaker took on was to transform the audience's emotional attachment to these grotesque creatures with ambiguous intentions from disgust to attachment. What was remarkable for me was that this change happened in all of 10 seconds, across two different scenes. The first scene shows us an alien sitting in its new home—one of the cardboard and corrugated tin shacks that populated (and still populate) Black African shanty towns in South Africa. The alien in the scene is squinting at the unfamiliar technology of a laptop computer, but tapping away proficiently, looking like a cross between your grandfather and a computer hacker. This scene establishes alien intellect. In a second scene, we are shown a simple close up of the alien's eyes. The eyes are expressive, but are also even more human than our closest primate relatives. Human eyes have a large amount of contrast: black pupils and colored irises on a white sclera background. Bonobos, chimps, gorillas all have dark on dark. It has been hypothesized that the high contrast evolved in humans to enable social communication, as gaze direction (and the social inferences that can be derived from gaze) is much easier to determine with high-contrast eyes. The high-contrast eyes of the alien (similar to ET's eyes, incidentally) endows the alien with social intelligence. Together, these scenes establish two things: (1) the aliens have minds, and (2) the aliens have hearts. Together, this makes the aliens more human.

And this is where the love story between folk wisdom and science comes in: these two humanizing characteristics are captured nicely in a psychological model developed by Susan Fiske called the Stereotype Content Model (SCM). In the SCM, human populations are characterized across the two dimensions of Warmth and Competence. The idea is this: Have a group of people report how much warmth and competence society thinks is embodied by a number of different groups, and then plot each group on a graph with 'warmth' along one axis and 'competence' along the other axis. Some groups will be 'low'/'low' and plotted in the lower left corner (e.g. the homeless). Other groups will be rated as 'low competence'/ 'high warmth' (e.g. the elderly), 'high'/'high' (the middle class, professionals), or 'low warmth'/'high competence' (lawyers, bankers and, alas, intellectuals).

Where you find yourself in the SCM has consequences: people who are 'low, low' are viewed as less human than 'us', and garner our disgust. Moving a group of people into the 'low, low' region has been cited as a tactic to drive intergroup violence—in the 1990s, the Hutus in Rwanda began to chronically characterize the Tutsis as 'cockroaches', which has been widely suggested to play a role in the ensuing genocide. Groups that may be even more prone to mass violence, though, are those that are viewed as high in competence but low in warmth. These groups tend to elicit envy rather than disgust, and the suffering of people from groups that are 'high'/'low' often results not in empathy but it's opposite: schadenfreude (delight in others' pain). Recent history is replete with mass atrocities against members of these groups: Chinese intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, Jews in Germany during WWII, groups who were favored by colonial powers once the colonial power is gone (e.g. Tamils in Sri Lanka).

What science fiction gives us is the way that visual depictions of others can manipulate their position across the SCM space. With ET, we start with a small creature with big, white sclera eyes that is unable to communicate. This places ET in the 'high warmth'/'low competence' quadrant, along with children, the disabled and the elderly. Then we learn that ET is actually really smart, which causes an immediately over to 'high'/'high', safe from harm and worthy of our empathy. The aliens in Alien, on the other hand, starts as an animal with no discernible eyes (or opaque, beady eyes), that are then, at some terrifying moment, endowed with thought and reason. This combination pushes them from the 'low'/'low' of animals towards the 'low warmth'/'high competence' that is populated by so many other groups that have been subject to mass extermination in our dark human past. And this is good for those films, because we as an audience can stomach (and relish) their mass extermination with nary a flutter of compassion.

So where does this love story between science and intuition take us? As a community concerned with intergroup conflict and political violence, our challenge is opposite to the genocidal criminal—we want to take groups who are already fully dehumanized, and bring them into relative safety. If we, as scientists, are to do our best to help drive societal attitudes about stigmatized groups (like the Roma—formerly 'gypsies'—in Europe) from their entrenched position in 'low, low', how should we do it? The intuition of sci-fi film-makers and the models of social scientists suggests that challenging stereotypes of intelligence may just drive them out of 'low, low' into the jaws of an even more dangerous place. An alternate approach would be to attempt to nudge people along the storyline of ET: establish warmth first, then address perceptions of competence. Nobody likes to be pitied, but it may be a much safer place to dwell for a time than in the heart of envy.

Film gives us inspiration, and also great hope: If an hour and a half in a dark theater can bring us to tears of sympathy towards an alien group that we have never met, then surely we have the potential to change our feelings about other human groups. How we do this may be the next chapter in this unlikely love story between hard science and artistic intuition.