"Even fleeting experiences of awe seem to situate a person in a broader collective and motivate a person to take on the concerns of others and behave on their behalf."
~ Paul Piff, Source
According to the latest research, the answer appears to be yes, experiences of awe do seem to increase altruism, generosity, and compassion. Even though the role of awe in human life has been discussed for ages, only recently has science started to tackle it. Researchers like Dacher Keltner, Jonathan Haidt, Paul Piff, Michelle “Lani” Shiota, Belinda Campos, and others have added greatly to our understanding of this powerful and unique emotion. One of the many interesting discoveries from their collective research, is how much awe seems to increase our prosocial tendencies, orienting us away from our small daily woes, and opening us up to the larger community.
What I love is that it doesn't require a scuba diving license or traveling to the highest mountain summit in order for awe to impact us (although both of those are great awe-inducers if you have the opportunity!). Instead of only relying on grandiose moments of feeling awestruck, Dacher Keltner talks a lot about what he calls, 'micro moments of awe.'
In a study at UC Berkeley, Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner had participants go outside. Half were instructed to look up for 1 minute as they stood under a grove of Tasmanian eucalyptus trees, a grove which just happens to be the tallest in North America, some reaching upwards of 200 feet. The other half of the participants, the control group, looked up at a building for 1 minute. After a few moments, a student (who was actually a planned actor), walked by and dropped his pens all over the sidewalk. Researchers then measured who was the most likely to help this student gather their belongings. It turns out that those that stood under the eucalyptus trees, who reported feeling more states of awe, were much more likely to go help and pick up the pens. They also reported increased ethicality and reduced feelings of entitlement over the control group (source). And this was all after just 1 minute!
Many other studies have been conducted that illustrate similar effects, showing that participants who had just seen an awe-inducing stimuli, were more likely to volunteer, donate, feel less entitled, share lottery winnings, etc.
“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”
~ Paul Piff, (source)
One of the key features of awe is what researchers call the 'small self' phenomena. In his talk given at The Art and Science of Awe conference that I was fortunate enough to attend at UC Berkeley (see below for full video), Paul Piff said:
Awe gives rise to the sense of what we call the 'small self.' It temporarily shifts a person's attention away from oneself to the larger things that they're a part of… These experiences of awe make people feel relatively less significant, more connected to something bigger, larger, more powerful than their individual self. Similarly, across these varied manipulations, we also find that awe brings about significant boosts in a person’s generosity, their willingness to help others, their willingness to behave in more ethical ways, and take on the needs of others and de-prioritize their own individual goals and concerns. And awe seems to give rise to these increased patterns of generosity, compassion and kindness because of this relative sense of smallness that awe can bring about.
In Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior, five studies were reported on that illustrate and explore this topic. The authors note that this 'small self' phenomena seems to be distinctly different from the sense of feeling small that is often experienced with social comparison emotions such as shame, inferiority, and unworthiness. They wrote, "a reduced sense of self may allow people to transcend self-interest and behave in accordance with their higher moral values, which may actually increase self-esteem" (source). Perhaps the altruistic effects of awe arise not just from a sense of a small self, but from feeling small in the face of something bigger.
Depending on our worldview and cosmology, we may interpret that 'something larger' in different ways. This is where Dustin DiPerna's phrase, "wake up, grow up, show up" becomes relevant. "Wake up" refers to waking up to higher states of consciousness, such as awe, reverence, oneness and realizing what some call one's True Nature. "Grow up" refers to developmental models of identity. A number of human development researchers say that most people move along development from an egocentric worldview to an ethnocentric to a world centric and then to a cosmocentric worldview, ever increasing the circles of care and concern as one continues to grow up. So when we talk about awe states helping us identify with something larger, depending on what our worldview and cosmology is, we may interpret that in different ways. Dustin DiPerna talks about how if we have an ethnocentric lens, that 'something larger' might be interpreted as feeling part of our 'tribe' or particular ethnic or other affinity group (source). That 'something larger' might also be interpreted through the lens of religious, spiritual, scientific or any number of other perspectives.
So while yes, I'm all about increasing the amount of awe that we experience, I am also curious how we can expand our sense of identity and cosmology to begin to identify more with the biosphere and entire cosmos and not just with whatever group with which we may associate. When we solely identify with one group and not another, we can begin to "otherize" different groups, enforcing stories of separation, which when taken to more extreme levels, can lead to violence. Identity formation is complex and a much larger topic, but it is something to consider, when thinking about this small self phenomena that is related to awe experiences.
Similar to moral elevation, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, awe has the ability to motivate us into action. Whereas moral elevation, the feeling that arises when witnessing someone commit a great act of kindness, motivates us to do similar acts and be more like the person that inspired us, awe tends to increase our desire to give, share, and support.
In our quest for discovering how to help foster a kinder, more compassionate, peaceful world, increasing experiences of awe could play a helpful role. As we've seen, even 1 minute of experiencing awe can impacted us greatly! So go out and discover your micro moments of awe!
“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.” ~ Paul Piff, (Source)
Check out this great talk by Paul Piff at the Berkeley Great Good's Art and Science of Awe conference that illustrates this topic well (and where many of the quotes came from).