How much awe does it take to prompt us to act more altruistically?

Daniel Stancato answers

Although many things can arouse awe, from beautiful buildings to elegant equations, the prototypical awe experience, at least in Western cultures, involves encounters with natural phenomena that are immense in size, scope, or complexity. For example, immense mountains and colossal canyons can inspire awe, but so can things more commonly encountered in day-to-day life, such as the ocean, the night sky, a gorgeous sunset, or, as we have shown in our study, towering trees. Because of this, experiences of awe can be relatively common; recent data in our lab indicates that people experience awe roughly twice per week.

Though the occasions and triggers of awe in our lives are varied, experiences of awe are unified by a core theme: perceptions of something that is so strikingly vast that it dramatically expands the observer’s usual frame of reference. This requires that new mental structures be created to make sense of the experience. Perhaps this is why experiences of awe are often referred to, colloquially, as “mind blowing.”

Because of the power and potency of these occurrences, even short-lived experiences of awe can have profound effects on behavior. In our lab, we have become increasingly interested in the social consequences of awe—in particular, the role of awe in motivating people to take action that contributes to the well-being of others and enhances the greater good. For example, in our studies, we found that simply spending one minute looking up at 200-foot-tall eucalyptus trees led participants to lend more help to another person who had “accidentally” dropped a box of pens on the ground (in reality, this was staged as part of the experiment). Furthermore, just watching a three-minute video of sweeping shots of natural landscapes caused our participants to be more generous toward an anonymous stranger by donating credits that could be exchanged for a chance to win a cash prize.

Why would awe inspire altruism and kindness on behalf of others? Our work finds that experiencing awe leads people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the needs of other people and feelings of being a part of something greater than themselves. This, in turn, increases behavior aimed at benefiting others at the expense of self-interest.

Whether or not it is possible to have “too much” awe, however, is an open question. Given that awe is often felt in response to things that are particularly novel or surprising, it is possible that repeated exposure to the same stimulus may yield diminishing returns. It is also quite possible that, when an individual has a particularly powerful or profound experience of awe, such that creating a new frame of reference to make sense of it is difficult, the experience could be accompanied by fear, even dread. What this suggests is that there are likely to be different types of awe—perhaps some awe experiences are more colored by astonishment and wonder, whereas others are more tinged by a sense of fear and threat. How do these different awe experiences affect us, our lives, and our relationships? These are important questions that we are only beginning to find answers to. The science of awe is just getting started.

Daniel Stancato is a graduate student at the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab at the University of California, Berkeley.