Psychology of Awe
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 26, 2020 (edited February 7, 2022)
We want the perfect selfie, with just the right smile, angle, and lighting. We attempt to dazzle with beauty, charm and creativity. When our picture fails to elicit clicks, we give it an adrenaline boost by hanging off a tall building, standing at the edge of a cliff, or taunting a deadly animal. Many self-promoting social-media stars risk their lives, hoping for a viral explosion. However, the spectacular when reproduced with an electronic device disappoints, failing to convey the intensity; the rush must be experienced, not viewed on a tiny screen.
Psychological growth waits for formidable moments, pushing past ordinary boundaries to create a cognitive pause, silencing the ego. In the shock of the unusual, we experience magnificent awe and we expand.
"A growing body of research suggests that experiencing awe may lead to a wide range of benefits, from happiness and health to perhaps more unexpected benefits such as generosity, humility, and critical thinking."
Summer Allen | Greater Good Magazine
What is Awe?
Immanuel Kant declared, “Two things awe me most, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.” The starry sky I always understood. Nature pierces the soul and elevates views. For a moment, in the shadows of a towering tree or the thundering sound of the ocean, our bothersome worries and haunting regrets disappear. But “the moral law within” stumped me. My understanding stalled; I couldn’t grasp Kant’s meaning.
Key Definition: Awe
Awe is a profound feeling of reverence (often mixed with a small sprinkling of fear) for something so grand that it is beyond our finite ability to comprehend.
Kirk Schneider provides a hint. He defined awe as a mixture of dread, vernation and wonder. He opens his book Rediscovery of Awe with a powerful proclamation, “The awesomeness of life is the starting point for psychology. Any psychology worth its name must begin with this premise. By awesomeness, I mean first of all, mystery—incomprehensibility, and second of all, magnificence—bedazzlement. I am speaking of the brute awareness that we exist at all” (2004).
For a moment, in the shadows of a towering tree or the thundering sound of the ocean, our bothersome worries and haunting regrets disappear.
In 2003, Johnathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner published “Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion.” Most awe related research cites their seminal work. Keltner and Haidt defined awe as a perception of vastness that exceeds our normal capacity to accommodate (2003). Haidt later explained in The Happiness Hypothesis that when vastness cannot be accommodated “people are stumped, stopped in their cognitive tracks…they feel small, powerless, passive, and receptive” (2006). The momentary pause created by awe readies the mind for change.
Keltner and Haidt explained, “Awe can transform people and reorient their lives, goals, and values. . . Awe inducing events may be one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth. The potential power of awe, combined with the mystery of its mechanism, may itself be a source of awe” (2003, p.312).
Awe inspired change is not a given, of course. For many, complexity and wonder are frightening. Instead of basking in the splendidness of the unexplainable, they write it off, close their minds, and return to biased scrips.
"Big moments that people have in their lives are going to produce awe, but what a lot of recent research is showing is that even those more everyday experiences of awe – just briefly noticing the beauty of nature in our neighborhood or in our backyard – those can have a positive effect on our well-being."
Craig Anderson | USA Today
William James, the father of American Psychology, gave a series of lectures (1901-1902) on the religious experience. These lectures are recorded in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. This book marks the intimate beginning of a personal journey. As part of a psychology course, I wrote a research paper on religion in modern society. I discovered James’s book during the research. The testimonies conflicted with my current beliefs, disrupting my narrative of purpose. I subsequently fell into an extended existential funk; My ordered existence was disarranged, sparking an extensive investigation, spanning over the next two-years. A search to accommodate.
In his lectures, James explores spiritual experiences that led people to conversion. He provided vivid testimonies of awe. While James focuses on religious conversions, awe isn’t limited to spiritual encounters. We can experience awe in any domain. Richard Dawkins, a renowned atheist and author of the Selfish Gene, describes the “spine-shivering, breath catching awe . . . that modern science can provide” (1997).
James taught that “temporary melting moods . . . which. . . the trials of real life. . .throw us break through . . .and let all sorts of. . .moral stagnancies drain away, leaving us. . . soft of heart and open to every nobler leading” (1936, p. 262).
Awe isn’t Always Positive.
Spectacular can be devastating. On September 11, 2001, the normal hustle of morning traffic ceased. The ordinary edginess vanished. Routine commitments lost significance, and mundane cares were non-existent. We’re experiencing a similar pause now in the deadly wake of the coronavirus.
Emotionally stunned, we stare at empty shelving where toilet paper used to exist. Awe, you see, isn’t always grand. Occasionally security is rocked. An epidemic, a natural disaster or an evil regime remind us of our fragile existence. Our normal mental structures struggle to accommodate.
“Because accommodation can be difficult or unsuccessful, awe straddles the border between positive and negative—provoking a sense of wonder, but also one of powerlessness and uncertainty” (Gottlieb, Keltner, and Lombrozo, 2018).
We comfortably settle into our lives, missing opportunities for awe. Last year, at an annual Independence Day celebration, I notice a man recording the extravaganza on his phone. Instead of enjoying the vast explosions skipping across the sky, he focused on his small screen.
Paradoxically, we try to capture the extra-ordinary, forcing it into the ordinary. Our efforts fail. When we force the vastness into tightly controlled boundaries, triumphantly shoving them into retrievable reproductions, we lose. The small pops and insignificant lights playing on a four-inch screen won’t stimulate. The actual experience is gone and all that exists is a lame recording.
Science reduces awe too, forcing unexplainable phenomena into definable categories. Researchers dismantle the wonderment into microscopic explainable parts, desacralizing the whole. The amazement fades into the uninspiring pile of disassembled parts. Schneider remarked that this contributes to the prevalent problem of our “quick-fix” and awe-depleted culture (2017).
"Thus, an awe-inducing stimulus — whether a stunning landscape, an intense religious experience, or a cloud-skimming skyscraper — gives us a sense of vastness, seeming much larger than us and the things we are used to, whether physically or metaphorically."
Anna Mikulak | Association for Psychological Science
Albert Einstein warned, “the process of scientific discovery is, in effect, a continual flight from wonder.” In the magnificence of his theoretical understanding, Einstein reminded us, “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” Einstein recognized the vast and unexplainable elements of complexity. Finite minds can never completely understand deeper matters. Our meager capability to know only shines a flickering light on the stunning landscape of the boundary-less universe.
Einstein explains, “Occurrences. . .are beyond the reach of exact prediction because of the variety of factors in operation, not because of any lack of order in nature.” Nature strictly follows predictable laws. There is order in life. However, we’re incapable of capturing all the laws contributing to the final outcome. Einstein says, “We still do not know one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us.”
Schneider warns that science must understand the paltriness of its discoveries (2004, p.10). Research isn’t an “awakened sensitivity to life” (p.9).
Research of Awe and Prosocial Behaviors
While research has limitations, science does provide glimpses into the whole. Utilizing Keltner and Haidt’s definition of awe, many interesting correlations were made between experiences of awe and prosocial behaviors. A prevailing explanation is that awe makes the self small. The small self hypothesis posits that perceived vastness shrinks the perception of the self in comparison (Piff, Dietze, et al. 2015).
Joshua Perlin and Leon Li (2020) proposed a revised model of the small self hypothesis, arguing that awe creates a quiet ego. Wayment and Bauer define the quiet ego as a self that transcends egotism, balancing concern for the self and others, as well as facilitating growth both in the self and others (2017). Perlin and Li describes, “the quiet ego is a description of the self at higher levels of psychological maturity—a self characterized by an appreciation of self—other interdependence, internal motivations to behave prosocially and an orientation towards growth” (2020).
Whether it’s a small self or a quiet ego, perhaps, doesn’t matter. Both theories agree that awe promotes pro-sociality by diminishing self-oriented concerns.
Accommodation and Psychological Growth
Feelings of awe humble us (Stellar, Gordon, et al. 2018). Self-other interdependence born from awe softens the ego, expanding tolerance for new values and ideas. The shift from me-focus to we-focus is necessary for accommodation of differences, no longer placing ourselves in the center of the universe (see The Universe is not my Servant).
Accommodation requires rewriting personal narratives. The old narrative is inadequate to integrate the new, forcing accommodation by revising our narrative identity. Jack Bauer and Dan McAdams found that self-transcendent growth narratives, emphasizing unity with all of humanity were associated with heightened psychological maturity (2010).
Laura King and Joshua Hicks in a delightful paper wrote, “Accommodation is reflected in thoughtful examination of lost goals and the reconstruction of and reinvestment in new goals… accommodative self-reflection, spurred by goal disruption, may lead to increasing levels of understanding. The construction of a new future toward which to strive—that is engagement with a new best possible self—would then indicate that an individual has fully accommodated the loss (2007, p. 627). In short, awe may spur accommodative processing, which is associated with psychological maturity, growth, and ego development.
Putting the Pieces Back Together
The research is interesting and convincing. However, these snapshots dismantle the majestic experiences of awe, capturing small dissembled pieces, arguing over theories, and confining awe to print on a computer screen. The intriguing theories give information but threaten to reduce the awesome undefinable whole—the opposite of an experience of awe. Experimental induced awe has limited scope, seeking answers from a qualitative experiment. A video, a tree, or Kant’s starry sky creates a momentary rush—a single moment in time.
Schneider suggests there are two forms of awe: “a quick boil” and “a slow simmer” (2017). The “quick boil” is easily manipulated and studied. The “slow simmer,” on the other hand, can’t be reproduced.
As my hair silvers, I think I finally grasp Kant’s awe at the “moral law within.” This produces Schneider’s slow simmer variety of awe. Something that we can experience daily. Life is stunning, full of complicated contradictions, unpredictable moments. We witness the beautiful and ugly. We helplessly watch a beloved child fall into devastating addictions, but then are thrilled by the miraculous birth of a child.
We are astonished by the stubbornness of thought, unconscious biases and deceptions that interfere with understanding. Yet, on occasion, we are graced with clarity and growth. We witness the presence of conflicting values and motives that decorate the human condition—humility and boldness, connection and individuality, sadness and joy, fear and courage. We feel the fragility of our existence while simultaneously feeing empowered. All these wonderous moments create awe.
The “slow-simmer” awe is not an identifiable event but an accommodating force—a living backdrop, generating wonder, amazement and fright. We can’t capture the enthralling experience of life in megapixels; we must live it, not with forced joy or sorrow, but a breathless respect for the fascinating and frightfully experience of being alive.
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Bauer, J., & McAdams, D. (2010). Eudaimonic Growth: Narrative Growth Goals Predict Increases in Ego Development and Subjective Well-Being 3 Years Later. Developmental Psychology, 46(4), 761-772.
Dawkins, R. (1997). Is Science a Religion? The humanist, 57(1), 26-29.
Gottlieb, S., Keltner, D., & Lombrozo, T. (2018). Awe as a Scientific Emotion. Cognitive Science - A Multidisciplinary Journal, 42(6), 2081-2094.
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Basic Books; 1 edition
James, W. (1936) The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. First Modern Library Edition. New York
Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching Awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 297-314.
King, L., & Hicks, J. (2007). Whatever Happened to “What Might Have Been”?. American Psychologist, 62(7), 625-636.
Perlin, J., & Li, L. (2020). Why Does Awe Have Prosocial Effects? New Perspectives on Awe and the Small Self. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(2), 291-308.
Piff, P., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(6), 883-899.
Schneider, K. (2004). Rediscovery of Awe: Splendor, Mystery and the Fluid Center of Life. Paragon House; 1st Edition.
Schneider, K. (2017). The Resurgence of Awe in Psychology: Promise, Hope, and Perils. The Humanistic Psychologist, 45(2), 103-108.
Stellar, J., Gordon, A., Anderson, C., Piff, P., McNeil, G., & Keltner, D. (2018). Awe and Humility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(2), 258-269.
Wayment, H., & Bauer, J. (2017). The Quiet Ego: Motives for Self-Other Balance and Growth in Relation to Well-Being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 19(3), 881-896.