People who experience feelings of awe tend to exhibit more altruistic, helpful, and positive social behaviors, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others,” said lead author Paul Piff, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine.
Awe is that sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something greater than ourselves and often transcends our understanding of the world. People commonly experience awe through nature, religion, art, and music.
In the first of five experiments, the researchers asked a representative sample of more than 1,500 people from across the U.S. to complete a questionnaire that measured how predisposed they were to experience awe.
The participants were then asked to play a game in which they were given 10 raffle tickets and had to decide how many, if any, to share with another player who did not have any tickets. The findings showed a strong link between the tendency to experience awe and generosity.
In the other four experiments, different groups of people (ranging in size from 75 to 254) were asked to participate in an activity (e.g., watch a video or gaze at something in their environment) designed to elicit awe, a neutral state or another reaction, such as pride or amusement.
The subjects then participated in an activity designed to measure what psychologists call pro-social behaviors or tendencies. (Pro-social behavior is positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship.) In every experiment, awe was significantly associated with pro-social behaviors.
The researchers say that awe induces a feeling of being diminished in the presence of something greater than oneself. It is this diminished sense of self that shifts focus away from an individual’s need and toward the greater good, they wrote.
“When experiencing awe, you may not, egocentrically speaking, feel like you’re at the center of the world anymore,” Piff said.
“By shifting attention toward larger entities and diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, we reasoned that awe would trigger tendencies to engage in pro-social behaviors that may be costly for you but that benefit and help others.”
One surprising finding was how many types awe-inspiring situations were able to promote cooperative behavior.
In one experiment, the researchers elicited awe by showing droplets of colored water falling into a bowl of milk in slow motion. In another, they provoked a negative form of awe by using a montage of threatening natural phenomena, such as tornadoes and volcanoes. In a final experiment, the researchers induced awe by situating participants in a grove of towering eucalyptus trees.
“Across all these different elicitors of awe, we found the same sorts of effects — people felt smaller, less self-important, and behaved in a more pro-social fashion,” said Piff.
“Might awe cause people to become more invested in the greater good, giving more to charity, volunteering to help others, or doing more to lessen their impact on the environment? Our research would suggest that the answer is yes.”