The Impact of Experiencing Awe


We all experience moments of temporary awe. Such feelings could be triggered by staring up at the night sky, watching the waves crash onto the shore, listening to your favorite singer perform your favorite song live, or watching an athlete turn in a performance for the ages.

While such experiences are often fleeting and hard to describe, a group of researchers wanted to study the impact of such experiences on people’s behavior. The researchers hypothesized that feelings of awe may trigger a relatively diminished sense of self, known as the “small-self”.

By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forego strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others. Improving the welfare of others is referred to as “prosocial behavior”, which includes actions such as generosity, helping, caring, ethical decision making, and decreased entitlement.

The researchers conducted five studies to examine the effect of awe on the small self and prosocial behavior. The results of the five studies supported their general hypothesis.

Individuals higher in dispositional tendencies to experience awe exhibited more generosity in an economic game (Study 1). Experimentally inducing awe caused individuals to endorse more ethical decisions (Study 2), to be more generous to a stranger (Study 3), and to report more prosocial values (Study 4). A naturalistic induction of awe in which participants looked up at a grove of towering trees led to increased helpfulness, greater ethicality, and decreased entitlement (Study 5).

The researchers concluded that that awe serves a vital social function. Future research is encouraged to further uncover the ways in which awe shifts people away from being the center of their own individual worlds, toward a focus on the broader social context and their place within it.

The research made me think about fund-raising, and how one might use awe-type experiences to increase the amount of money contributed by donors.

Perhaps that’s what preachers have been doing for years. They deliver an awe-inspiring sermon, and right after that, they start passing around the baskets.

I’ve also been to plays where at the end of a potentially awe-some performance, the actors appear back on stage and ask for donations to support various causes.

So while the preachers and actors may not have thought about it much, perhaps they just knew instinctively that people were more likely to be generous after they had a potentially awe-like experience.

It seems as if awe can be a powerful tool for affecting one’s behavior, and I’m surprised that such information is not acted on more often.

Maybe I should start putting anonymous donation buckets at strategic viewing points along beaches and mountain vistas…

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