Toward a Psychological Science of Awe
Sunday, May 25, 2014,
10:30 AM - 11:50 AM
Awe is among the most cherished human experiences. Rooted in perceptions of something unusually vast that one’s current knowledge structures cannot accommodate, awe allows people to rise above stimulus-response patterns and lose themselves in an all-encompassing event. Four talks detail cutting-edge research on how awe influences memory, perception, and behavior.Feelings of awe are arguably the most cherished and transformative experiences in human life. Awe, defined by the sense of being in the presence of something bigger than the self that current knowledge structures cannot accommodate, allows people to rise above stimulus-response patterns and lose themselves in an all-encompassing event. The current talks features some of the most innovative new research on awe by moving beyond construct validation to testing its effects on memory, perception, and behavior. First, Keltner will focus on the science of how awe is signaled and communicated. He will present an evolutionary argument for the universality of awe, and how it has likely evolved. Keltner will present evidence documenting how awe is expressed and signaled in the face and voice in 10 cultures. He will also present new work from his lab translating this science to the design of emoticons for use in an online social network, and show how cultures vary in their expression of awe and the cultural correlates of such variation. Next, Shiota will present studies exploring the effects of awe on memory. Whereas prior research has suggested that positive emotions tend to inhibit memory for peripheral details across stimuli, Shiota argues that awe may actually facilitate memory for peripheral details. She will report findings from four separate studies showing that awe enhances memory for both the “gist” and peripheral details of complex visual imagery and narratives about a familiar personal event. Together, these studies suggest that awe may influence memory in ways that contrast with the effects of other prototypical positive emotions (e.g., love). Valdesolo will then talk about how awe shapes cognition and perception. In particular, he will report studies finding that awe increases both supernatural belief and intentional-pattern perception — two phenomena that have been linked to agency detection, or the tendency to interpret events as the consequence of intentional and purpose-driven agents. These studies demonstrate that experiences of awe decrease tolerance for uncertainty, which, in turn, increase the tendency to believe in nonhuman agents and to perceive human agency in random events. Finally, Piff will discuss the importance of awe for morality. In particular, Piff argues that awe makes people less self-focused and more prosocial. Across several laboratory studies, Piff found that awe, relative to various control states conditions (e.g., amusement), led to enhanced generosity. Moreover, an in-vivo manipulation of awe in which participants stood in a grove of towering trees (versus control) led to reduced feelings of entitlement and increased helping. Process data indicate that awe prompts feelings of being connected to something larger than the self, which, in turn, lead to increased virtuous behavior. Together, these cutting-edge papers elucidate the effects of awe on social cognition and behavior and highlight awe as a flourishing area of psychological science.