Awe and Order

Carlo Valdesolo

When do we feel awe? And what kinds of behaviors and beliefs does this emotional state motivate? Recent research has explored these questions in a variety of ways and several themes have begun to emerge. First, we feel awe when in the presence of something it is hard to wrap our minds around, whether this be the infinite depths of space, a beautiful piece of art, or a striking double rainbow. And these failures to assimilate information into our knowledge structures can elicit deep feelings of uncertainty and confusion, motivating us to imbue our environment with order and predictability. In short, awe makes us want to know what does it all mean? And while research has shown that we can satisfy this motivation in a variety of ways, we often turn to one of two dominant explanatory frameworks in our attempts to do so: religion and science.

The relationship between awe and religiosity or spirituality has been demonstrated before. For example, a recent paper by Jesse Graham and I tested the effect of awe on agency detection – that is, the tendency to infer that a stimulus must have been designed by an intentional agent, like a human or a God. We predicted that the uncertainty people feel when they experience awe will cause them to detect supernatural agents, like Gods and ghosts.

We conducted three studies that tested these predictions. In general, participants across these studies were made to feel either awe, amusement or a neutral emotional state, then they completed an individual difference measure known to measure their ability to tolerate feelings of uncertainty, and finally they were then asked to indicate their belief in supernatural agents. Across these studies we found consistent support for our hypotheses. Awe made participants less tolerant of uncertainty (compared to participants in the other conditions), and in turn these feelings of uncertainty led to increased agency detection in the domain of the supernatural. This suggests that one way we make sense of the awe-inspiring experiences in our lives that most deeply challenge our understanding of the world is through reinterpreting them as the product of some kind of intentional actor–by seeing agency even where there might be none.

But no work as of yet has examined the effect awe might have on attitudes towards scientific explanation. It’s possible that there is something 5854379112_3f237540dc_bunique about the relationship between awe and religion (a conceptual association, perhaps) that makes us exclusively more open to supernatural explanations, but that doesn’t change our affinity for secular explanations of the world. Alternatively, it might be that the effects of awe on explanation are not domain-specific. That is, awe motivates us to find order through any explanatory means available, religious or scientific. Research in my lab has begun to test this idea and we have preliminary support for the hypothesis. It appears that when we gaze upon the Grand Canyon, we might not just be more likely to believe in a grand designer, but also more attracted towards the geological principles explaining its creation. Of course, our affinity for one kind of explanation or the other will likely depend on a number of factors, not least of which are our existing ideological proclivities. If we have strong theistic, or atheistic, beliefs, experiencing awe will likely strengthen them. An interesting question for future research remains (especially for those of us who would like to promote interest in science), how might we nudge people towards one kind of explanation instead of the other?

Photo credit: picture by Moyan Brenn on Flickr "Grand Canyon" (C) 2011 Moyan Brenn

Emoting online – more than just smileys

Lisa Williams

Social media: love it or hate it, it’s here to stay. Speaking of love and hate, a surge of recent research has tackled core questions regarding emotional processes as they play out on social media.

How do we e-communicate our emotional states? Emoticons, and their more graphical cousins emoji, are one popular route. Since the 1980’s, online communicators have been using combinations of punctuation marks to convey sarcasm or a joking tone (e.g., “bugger off!” and “bugger off :-)” certainly convey different meanings). Recently, social psychologist Dacher Keltner teamed up with folks at Pixar to develop a ‘sticker’ set of animated emoji called Finch. Finches were designed to reflect the great variety of emotional experience that simply can’t be captured with semicolons, parentheses, and dashes, including love, sympathy, awe, jealousy, and embarrassment.

Not only are Finch emoji quite popular, analysis of their use presented by Dacher Keltner at the February meeting of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology reveals fascinating trends around the world. Use of the ‘loving’ Finch is highly frequent in Russia and Mediterranean regions; use of the 93571524_43b1e4070f_o‘sympathetic’ Finch is highly frequent in Australia and the Americas. What can emotion communication tell us about a culture? Apparently, quite a bit.

Emotion communication in social media is of course not limited to emoticons and emoji. The words we use also convey how we felt about a past event, currently feel at the moment, or anticipate feeling in the future. Linguistic analysis of Facebook and Twitter posts reveals a great deal about users’ emotions. An intriguing interface at the World Wellbeing Project ( allows visitors to track word usage across age groups, including, but not limited to, words with emotional tone. Analyses are based on over 75,000 Facebook users. My own cursory analysis revealed that older users use ‘grateful’ more often and ‘angry’ less often than their younger counterparts. So, the informative nature of emotional e-communication isn’t just cultural – emotive language online varies according to age groups, genders, and personality traits.

It turns out that online emotive language is not just descriptive – it can serve as an indicator of a community’s level of wellbeing. Analysis of 148 million Twitter posts conducted by a team led by Johannes C. Eichstaedt revealed that communities whose residents tweet with angry language are communities high in risk for mortality from atherosclerotic heart disease. In fact, language on Twitter did a better job of predicting cardiac disease mortality than a set of 10 predictors including demographics (e.g., gender), socioeconomic variables (e.g., income), and health risk factors (e.g., smoking).

Complemented by findings that online emotions are ‘contagious,’ it becomes clear that emotional processes on social media are potent. Controversial Facebook experiment aside, the concept that emotions spread through social media networks has received robust empirical support. Analysis of 3.5 million Twitter-like posts from China (on Weibo) 5653817859_3567ac7c8f_orevealed that joy spreads quickly through the network, but is outpaced by anger. In another study conducted on millions of Facebook users, positive posts by one user increased positive posts by that user’s friends at a factor of 1.75 (and decreased negative posts at a factor of 1.80). The factor for one user’s negative posts increasing friends’ negative posts was 1.29 (and 1.26 for decreasing friends’ positive posts). Additional evidence for emotional contagion online comes from Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, who analyzed the viral nature of 7,000 New York Times online articles. Content that angered readers was more likely to be shared than those that saddened readers.

It’s not as dire as it may seem: in that latter study, NYT content that resulted in a sense of awe was also shared widely. Negativity is viral – but so two is positive content – especially that which ‘wows’ us.

This isn’t to say that we are passive users of social media, subject to the emotional whims of others. Indeed, we use social media as a forum for emotion regulation: research by Benjamin K. Johnson and Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick shows that, when in feeling a bit down, individuals seek out downward social comparisons to other social media users that might be worse off (apparently in an effort to feel better about ourselves).

The emotional tenor of online communication reveals a great deal about who we are as people, as cultures, and as humankind. Not only do we influence others, we are also influenced by the emotions we share via social media. Social scientists are just beginning to understand the emotion processes that play out in social media – we are at the exciting forefront of the era of ‘big data’.

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