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