How Awe-Inspiring Moments Bring People Together
Many of us know the pleasures of feeling awe. Whether hiking majestic peaks, admiring great art, or watching the birth of a child, experiences like these fill us with a sense of wonder, challenging our understanding of the world and our place in it.
But, while many of us know it when we feel it, science has not understood awe as an emotion very well. Though research suggests awe increases our well-being and leads us to be more altruistic and generous, it’s still not clear why that would be.
Now a new study sheds some light on awe’s unique function. Through a series of experiments, an international team of researchers were able to show that experiences of awe diminish our sense of self-importance, creating a “small self” perspective that seems to aid us in forming social groups.
Yang Bai—a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the paper’s authors—believes her research lends insight into awe’s evolutionary purpose. Awe helps you to stop focusing so much on yourself and to look more to what’s around you—toward other people and the world at large, she says. And, by doing that, people will naturally seek more social engagement.
As the self shrinks, our world expands
In the first experiment, participants from China and the United States filled out daily diaries, writing about either an experience of awe (if they’d had one that day), an experience of joy (if they hadn’t experienced awe), or something they wanted to share (if they had experienced neither emotion).
The participants also gauged how strongly they felt various positive and negative emotions—like hope, gratitude, envy, or embarrassment—and filled out a quick measure of “self-size” in which they were asked to choose a circle that most represented their sense of self from a series of progressively larger circles. (This measure of self-size and others had been validated previously and were not connected to one’s actual body size.)
Analyzing the contents of the diaries, the researchers found that both groups reported a smaller self-size after experiences of awe than of joy, and that the self-size was related to the degree of awe they felt. In addition, they found that other positive or negative feelings did not affect self-size ratings.
This result did not surprise Yang Bai. “When I experience awe, I feel like I’m just a small piece of this great world,” she says. “It’s a kind of a metaphorical sense of the self that is shrinking during awe.”
Awe keeps us together
Chinese and American participants were randomly assigned to watch an awe-inducing video or a humorous video and then instructed to draw a picture of their current social circle, using circles to represent people (including themselves) and distances between circles to represent how close they felt to each member of the social network. They also filled out a questionnaire about their emotions.
Afterwards, coders counted the number of circles to see how many people were in each participant’s social circle. Then, they measured the size of the circle labeled “me,” the average size of the circles representing others, and the average distance between each “other” circle and the “me” circle.
The small-self experienced in awe is tied to better social relationships
Results showed that participants feeling awe drew smaller circle sizes for the self, as one might expect given other experiments. However, feelings of awe did not decrease the average size of the other circles drawn, so that the “small-self” effect didn’t make everything look smaller.
In addition, for awe-filled American participants, the number of circles representing their social ties increased; for Chinese participants, the average distance between “other” and “me” circles decreased, but the number of social ties didn’t change significantly. Bai suggests this may have to do with cultural differences—Americans being more individualistic, and Chinese being more collectivist. But, regardless, she concludes, the small-self experienced in awe is tied to better social relationships.
“While we’re feeling small in an awe moment, we are feeling connected to more people or feeling closer to others,” she says. “That’s awe’s purpose, or at least one of its purposes.”
In the final experiment, Bai and her colleagues looked at awe and social cohesion, while also comparing the effects of awe versus shame—an emotion also linked to “small-self,” though not in the same way.
Participants filled out a survey which included a measure of their self-size. Then, they were prompted to recall an experience of awe, shame, or a neutral control (specifically, when they last did laundry) and to write about it. Afterwards, they again rated their self-size, and filled out measures of self-focus, engagement with others, self-esteem, social status, and sense of power.
Those who wrote about awe or shame both experienced a decreased self-size, as expected. But, the participants in the awe condition did not experience lower self-esteem, social status, or power. Instead, they experienced greater collective engagement than those who experienced shame.
“We can feel small in response to different kinds of emotions—for example, when you feel embarrassed, you will also feel small. However, the smallness brought on by awe is unique,” says Bai.
She hopes that by spreading the idea of awe and the small self, she will help people to understand why they need more awe in their lives.
“People can easily ignore the benefits of feeling small, of feeling humble,” she says. “But, we all feel the need to feel connection to other human beings, and awe plays a very important role in that.”