Awe May Make Us Kinder to Each Other

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Sedona, Arizona

When was the last time you were awestruck? Perhaps when traveling through the mountains, taking in the view of a city skyline, or contemplating the enormity of space. Maybe you got a ripple of goosebumps, felt tiny in the vastness of things, or couldn't help but say, “Wow.”

A new study suggests we feel awe for a reason: because it encourages us to be good to one another. That's the big idea behind a study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which found that awe helps bind us to others, motivating us to act in collaborative ways that enable strong groups and cohesive communities, according to the researchers.

"Awe is the perception of something so physically or conceptually vast that it transcends your view of the world and you need to find ways to accommodate it," study author Paul Piff of UC Irvine told New Scientist. “It's a basic sense that what you have experienced doesn't fit in with your expectations of the world, so you have to recalibrate."

To explore the impact of awe on human interaction, Piff and his team conducted five studies. In one they asked a group of volunteers to spend some time marveling at a grove of Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees in California. Meanwhile, a separate group stared at the boring facade of a building. When a researcher “accidentally” dropped a handful of pens on the ground, the tree gawkers were quick to help, picking up more pens than the building contemplators.  

In another, participants received 10 raffle tickets to be entered into a cash drawing with their name on them. They could keep all the tickets for themselves, or share some with other empty-handed test subjects. People who reported being regularly exposed to awe-inspiring moments gave 40 percent more tickets away to strangers.

Why do beautiful, inspiring things make us more compassionate? “Awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves—one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger,” Piff says.

Awe is often triggered by the sight of things much larger than we are, according to a 2003 study by Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley and Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia. They cite Michelangelo’s statue of David, which towers over spectators, as a good example.

Beautiful objects in nature get the job done, too. Mountains, trees, waterfalls, the vast sprawl of the Grand Canyon—all have the incredible ability to make us feel small, humble, and inspired.

However, that poses a problem in modern life, when we spend less time outside in nature than we do inside peering at our devices. One study from 2008 found that Americans were spending 25 percent less time outside compared to 1987. And we're not exposing ourselves to as much theater and art as we used to.

So if you want more wonder (and perhaps to be kinder), what sorts of things should you be doing? Hiking to a mountain summit can help, but even small amounts of time spent marveling in awe—say, by taking a walk in the woods or stopping by a gallery on your lunch hour—can lower our narcissism and boost our ability to be more considerate of those around us, the researchers say.

And if you can’t get outside or to a museum, watch a video of nature being amazing—because that works too. Piff says, "We suggest that people … actively seek out what gives them goosebumps."