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The Power of Awe

Research suggests feelings of veneration and wonder can induce humility and concern for others.
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(Photo: Philippe Put/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Philippe Put/Shutterstock)

Does it seem that people today are less generous, less ethical, and generally more self-involved? Newly published research suggests a possible way of tempering this troubling trend.

It suggests we all need a little more awe in our lives.

“Awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function,” writes a research team led by psychologist Paul Piff of the University of California-Irvine. “By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forego strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others.”

In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Piff and his colleagues argue experiences that elicit awe—say, gazing at a starry sky or a vast ocean—tend to make us feel small and insignificant. This, in turn, leads to greater generosity, as our personal gains or losses seem less important.

"Reminding participants of a time when they experienced awe ... increased their tendencies to endorse ethical decisions across a variety of scenarios."

They describe five experiments that provide evidence for this thesis. In the first and simplest, a nationally representative sample of 1,519 people rated the levels of seven distinct positive emotions in their lives, including humor, compassion, pride, enthusiasm, and awe. Afterwards, they were given 10 raffle tickets and asked how many they wanted to keep, and how many they chose to give to another participant who would otherwise get none.

Among those who played a higher-stakes game—that is, those who were told the tickets were for a $500 raffle, rather than a $10 one—“tendencies to experience awe were positively and significantly associated with generosity.” (So, by the way, were compassion and contentment.)

In another experiment, 75 adults recruited online were asked to think about, and briefly describe, a time “when you encountered a natural scene that caused you to feel awe,” a time “when you felt pride,” or simply “something you did fairly recently.” They were subsequently asked to rate the extent to which they felt “the presence of something greater than myself.”

Finally, they were presented with series of vignettes that raised moral issues. One described a morning during which, after returning from a coffee shop, they realized the clerk had given them change for a $20 rather than a $10. What were the odds they would return their windfall?

The result: “Reminding participants of a time when they experienced awe ... increased their tendencies to endorse ethical decisions across a variety of scenarios.” Recalling that feeling resulted in “a relative diminishment of the concepts and concerns attached to the individual self,” the researchers write.

Further experiments showed that a humorous nature video did not have the same effect as an awe-inspiring one, and that altruism-inspiring awe can also be instilled by watching video that “did not depict scenes of the natural environment or living systems.”

In a final experiment, 90 University of California-Berkeley students were escorted to “a grove of Tasmanian eucalyptus trees with heights exceeding 200 feet.” Half spent one minute looking up at the towering trees, while the others spent the same amount of time staring at “an adjacent tall building.” (The trees were much bigger than those we normally experience, but the building was “not atypical from others on campus.”)

Immediately afterwards, a researcher “approached participants holding a questionnaire and a box of 11 pens, and spilled the pens in front of them—ostensibly by accident.” Those who had stared at the trees not only reported higher ethical standards and lower levels of entitlement, but demonstrated that selfless state of mind by picking up more of the pens.

It all suggests that “awe leads to more pro-social tendencies by broadening the individual’s perspective to include entities vaster and more powerful than oneself, and diminishing the salience of the individual self,” the researchers conclude.

To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart, the problems of individual people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But a different type of hill—one that is full of greenery so lush and beautiful that you gaze at it in wonder—will effectively drive home that point, and change our behavior for the better.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.