Why experiencing awe is important - RSA

Blog: Why experiencing awe is important

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  • Behaviour change
  • Spirituality

Experiencing awe, or feeling part of something bigger, can affect how we interact with others - for the better.

When my alarm sounded at 3:30am on Monday morning, my first reaction was, as if on autopilot, to reach for my robe and sleepwalk to the shower. But then I realised this was not my normal wake up time. And in the next seconds while I was questioning why on earth my alarm went off so early, my husband’s alarm chimed in too. And then I remembered. We had only ourselves to blame. We chose this wake up time.

We were, like many others, lured out of bed to take a look at the supermoon lunar eclipse. With a name like that and the promise of a blood red moon, we just had to see it with our own eyes. And, while it was smaller than I had expected, I think it was worth the early morning wake up. The moon was indeed beautiful, but what’s more is that it seemed like this rare, natural phenomenon linked us in some way to our loved ones - even those on different continents – who would also be watching this sight. The supermoon lunar eclipse reminded us of the magic of the universe. It was more than just pretty cool to see, it was awesome.

Experiencing awe doesn’t just get us out of bed or give us something to post on instagram (let’s face it, lesser things have passed that test). New research finds that it gives us something else: it makes us behave more nicely to others.

So what exactly are we talking about when we use the term awe? According to Assistant Professor Paul Piff (quoted in this Quartz article), “Awe is an experience that arises when you perceive something physically or conceptually vast, but that also makes you feel that your current understanding of the world is not adequate,” Piff says. “It doesn’t take much—even 60 seconds—to give yourself a little time to experience something anew.””  And it seems that reducing the importance of the self leads people to be more pro-social, more compassionate to others.

Paul Piff and his colleagues’ recent research found that when people feel this connectedness to something bigger, this sense of awe, they behaved more altruistically. The researchers tested this in a series of experiments, both in the lab and out, and found that people were consistently more helpful, generous, and expected less payment for their participation after viewing awe-inducing clips or objects compared to those who saw things that were less awesome.

For example, in one study, some people were asked to stare at a towering grove of eucalyptus trees whereas others stared at a building of the same height. When the experimenter ‘accidentally’ dropped a box of pens, those who were in the tree-gazing group helped the experimenter to pick up more pens than those who had been looking at the building. 

I’ve written elsewhere about other research by Piff about surprising (or maybe not!) connections. For example, he and colleagues found that people with higher wealth and social status were ruder and more selfish, even when they knew that their relative position was randomly assigned – that is, even when they knew that their advantage was pure luck and not down to any personal attributes.

But this new research has heartening implications. Feeling like part of something bigger leads people to act as if they are part of something bigger, in it less for him- or herself and more for the greater good of the whole. Does this mean that simple and low cost activities could transform the relationships within schools, workplaces, communities? Could playing a video clip of awesome natural phenomena, or asking people to recall a time they’ve felt awe, help to build compassion within – and crucially, between – groups?  

So many challenges that we are faced with these days are plagued by anti-sociality, from cyber bullying to the refugee crisis to climate change. If we now think there is an effective tool to bring about pro-sociality, it seems to me that we should be giving it a shot.


Original research is here (paywall). These freely available articles from The Greater Good and Quartz provide nice summaries. 

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  • As a humanist, I find the very fact that we are even here utterly awesome.  When you think of all the random developments over time that have led to our emergence, it is absolutely amazing.  Religion does not come into the sheer vastness of the Universe and all the wonderful vistas that are to be found there.  We are all just at the very beginning as a species, i.e. humankind.  Keeping ourselves and other species alive and passing-on our views and cultures to future generations will be a truly awesome achievement in itself - if we are up to it.  All the more reason to take climate change seriously if we want our awesome achievements in the arts, sciences and technologies to endure! Without them, we will never make it - that is a fact.

    • I think it is even more awesome to realize that "all the random developments over time" seem to have such a purposeful behavior.  Higher and more complex behaviors emerge from simpler ones - a paradox in the face of entropy.  And here we are - conscious human beings able to reflect on our own existence, the Universe in which we live and the infinity beyond.

      Nothing short of religion (spiritual reflection) can possibly do justice to the sense of mystery and awe this inspires!

      • Religion has been described as the god of the gaps, i.e. those gaps in our existing knowledge and understanding which religious ideologies attempt to fill - largely unsuccessfully.
        What is interesting - I find - is the concentration on the concept of entropy when we also know that we cannot explain the overall mass of the Universe and its rate of expansion to the tune of something like 95 per cent! 
        I am not a trained scientific but my limited reading of works on quantum physics has revealed to me that energy can continually come into existence - and even disappear randomly.  This random appearance and disappearance may explain why we are at a loss to explain why we end up having to speculate on around 70 per cent dark energy and 30 per cent dark matter existing in our Universe.
        What we know today would literally astonish people who lived 1,000 years ago.  Just imagine how astonished we might be if we could be around in a further 1,000 years' time and then see just what humankind has learned about the real nature of existence and the Universe by then!
        The truth is that there is no real mystery about life, the Universe and everything.
        It is only the gaps in our knowledge which lead us down these peculiar pathways.
        Would it not be better to commit all the human, material and other resources wasted on religion towards proper programmes of scientific research and understanding?
        Then, there would be a considerably reduced numbers of gaps to have to contend with.

        • John - Sorry for the delay in my reply.  I'm afraid I do disagree with your first and last points!  Religion is not, fundamentally, occupied with filling gaps in knowledge - it's rather about giving meaning and purpose - concepts that are transcendent to empirical concerns.  PS:  I wrote a post on God of the Gaps which you might not like: http://swedenborgcenterconcord.org/god-of-the-gaps/  

          I am also astonished to hear you say "there is no real mystery about life, the Universe and everything."  To the contrary, there is mystery at ALL of the edges and in the foundations of all human knowledge.  Perhaps you and I have just been looking in different places.  My 2015 FQXi essay "The Hole at the Center of Creation" is an attempt to turn over some of the rocks and expose those mysteries:  http://fqxi.org/community/forum/topic/2381  

  • Nathalie - Thanks for the gracious reply!  I have followed the RSA project on spirituality. (see:http://swedenborgcenterconcord.org/a-call-for-spirituality-marking-the-transition-to-a-post-secular-society/)   It is an interesting project to try and create a secular framework for what are essentially religious practices in order to help us make the world a better place.  Awe has to be a part of that!  But with awe comes something transcendent - something beyond the secular.  Perhaps we just need a new word for "God".


    • Religions - all religions - are simply relics of former empires.  Whether the former Greek, Persian, Judaic, Roman or Arabic empires, they were all invented to buttress the imperial ideologies of those and other empires.  It is high time we left all those unproductive ideologies behind and stood on our own two feet, looking confidently forward to living the one and only life we all have. Whether 1 or 100, all human and other life-forms should be respected and valued.  We don't need ersatz "spirituality" for that.

      • Why, perchance, should one respect and value "all human and other life-forms"?

        Without some framework of ideas (ideology), I'm afraid we do not get a very satisfying answer, if we get an answer at all.  For humans to behave humanely is contrary to our first instincts for survival and control.  Setting these aside requires one to develop respect for a higher purpose or higher authority.  Moral behavior, then, is the consequence of one's spiritual choices (religion).

        Let us also not forget that those empires, in addition to what one may feel are depredations of human or other life, were powerful engines for civil order, the advancement and sharing of culture, and ultimate economic progress which has provided vast economic benefits to humanity, benefits which you and I both enjoy,

        • George: you have clearly failed to grasp a humanist approach towards the questions you raise.
          The reason we respect all human and other life forms is because individually and collectively we rely upon them for our own survival, as we are all part of one single planetary environment.
          Behaving humanely and co-operatively is what ensures our survival and the survival of other species upon whom we rely for our own survival and more.
          Alas, the empires you remember with rose-coloured nostalgia are no more - and a good thing too.
          It was their very aggressive and exploitative ways which doomed them to extinction.
          You might just learn something from this?

          • Thank you John, I do understand the humanist ideology you articulate here, and agree wholeheartedly that cooperation is key to our survival.  I suspect you would agree with my FQXi essay where I argue that empathy (and the cooperative behaviors that result) should arm "The Tip of the Spear" in humanity's quest to shape the future.  (see: http://fqxi.org/community/forum/topic/2029   )   

            But why does "survival" have such high value?  What, indeed, are we surviving for?  The "and more" in your reply suggests that you may have some thoughts on this, which I would be interested in hearing. 

            As for the lost empires, I do not regret their demise, but would argue that they would never have been successful in the first place had they not provided significant benefits to humanity.  They were, I think, essential to human cultural and economic evolution.  Art, philosophy, literature, and science developed and flourished under the best of those empires.   Moreover, all human institutions, even modern ones, have a natural tendency to entrenchment, ossification and exploitation as power accumulates.  The corrupting influence of power is well known - the temptation for self-reward and self-aggrandizement can turn all but the most self-less leaders to "non-cooperative" behaviors.  There are valuable lessons to be learned from the empires of the past.

            • I read your Tip of the Spear article with considerable interest.  Most of it I found myself in agreement with.  However, on the question of 'awe', I still do not see why we make this such a big deal.  What is awesome is that we - as a species - are possibly the only one of our kind in the entire Universe.  Our very survival is truly awesome.  As for questioning survival, what is the alternative - extinction?  Does anyone truly seek complete extinction of ourselves and our species?  I would suggest only a true lunatic would wish this on themselves and others, rather like Adolf Hitler towards the end of the Second World War.  What we are surviving for is to pass on our genes and our culture to future generations so that like our predecessors we make it possible for others to live on in an improving world of the future.  That is an awesome prospect to conjure with.
              To refute possible accusations of speciesism, I would also add that it is essential that we safeguard - as far as we are capable of doing so - other species on whom we currently rely for our survival and which make the world in which we live an altogether better place to be.  We all know and are concerned about the fate of honey bees and other pollinators.  After all, if we lose them, just who will carry out the tedious task of pollinating fruits, vegetables and other flora?  Us?
              One final point: why is it considered so essential to keep on pushing the idea of spirituality?
              It is not a concept that ever informs my day to day existence. All it highlights is our continuing lack of knowledge and understanding as to how external stimuli affect our feelings and emotions.  We know, for example, that certain combinations of musical notes can engender particular feelings and emotions within us.  While we as yet lack sufficient scientific knowledge to explain why these stimuli provoke the internal responses in our bodies that they do, this will disappear over time as we gain greater knowledge and understanding of our internal processes. A similar argument can be made for relegating religious beliefs and practices over time.  Eventually, our heightened knowledge and understanding will eventuate in an abandonment of these ideologies and our successors will - hopefully - live in a more rational and benign form of future society.

  • Hi George, thanks so much for your comments and for linking in your blog post - I read it with interest (and Baumeister's Willpower book is on my to-be-read shelf, so your post is a good reminder for me that I want to read the book!). Regarding Piff's work, I'd say that the research itself is new in that the experiments were carried out recently, even if the findings confirm what some or even most people may already believe to be true. Perhaps you might find some of the work that my colleague Jonathan Rowson did on spirituality interesting. It's available here on the RSA website https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/spiritualise-revitalising-spirituality-to-address-21st-century-challenges/

    (Also, hello to Concord - I grew up not far from there) Thanks again!

  • Very nice post, than you.  I am, however, always amused when research is reported as "new" when it simply confirms what should be obvious and apparent to all of us.  Of course the experience of "awe" diminishes the ego, and this has the beneficial side effect of allowing us to be better human beings to each other - just talk to any sincere Buddhist or Christian.  Similarly, a belief in the Almighty (by whatever name) increases willpower and self-control (see for example my post on Baumeister's work:  http://swedenborgcenterconcord.org/does-science-proves-religion/).  Naturally, if you believe someone very important is always watching you, it will have a salutary impact on your behavior.  Regards!