When Awe-Struck, We Feel Both Smaller and Larger

By ALISON GOPNIK in the Wall Street Journal

I took my grandchildren this week to see “The Nutcracker.” At the crucial moment in the ballet, when the Christmas tree magically expands, my 3-year-old granddaughter, her head tilted up, eyes wide, let out an impressive, irrepressible “Ohhhh!”

 

The image of that enchanted tree captures everything marvelous about the holiday, for believers and secular people alike. The emotion that it evokes makes braving the city traffic and crowds worthwhile. 

What the children, and their grandmother, felt was awe—that special sense of the vastness of nature, the universe, the cosmos, and our own insignificance in comparison. Awe can be inspired by a magnificent tree or by Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” or by Christmas Eve mass in the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral.

But why does this emotion mean so much to us? Dacher Keltner, a psychologist who teaches (as I do) at the University of California, Berkeley, has been studying awe for 15 years. He and his research colleagues think that the emotion is as universal as happiness or anger and that it occurs everywhere with the same astonished gasp. In one study Prof. Keltner participated in, villagers in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan who listened to a brief recording of American voices immediately recognized the sound of awe. 

Prof. Keltner’s earlier research has also shown that awe is good for us and for society. When people experience awe—looking up at a majestic sequoia, for example—they become more altruistic and cooperative. They are less preoccupied by the trials of daily life. 

Why does awe have this effect? A new study, by Prof. Keltner, Yang Bai and their colleagues, conditionally accepted in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows how awe works its magic. 

Awe’s most visible psychological effect is to shrink our egos, our sense of our own importance. Ego may seem very abstract, but in the new study the researchers found a simple and reliable way to measure it. The team showed their subjects seven circles of increasing size and asked them to pick the one that corresponded to their sense of themselves. Those who reported feeling more important or more entitled selected a bigger circle; they had bigger egos. 

The researchers asked 83 participants from the U.S. and 88 from China to keep a diary of their emotions. It turned out that, on days when they reported feeling awe, they selected smaller circles to describe themselves.

 

Then the team arranged for more than a thousand tourists from many countries to do the circle test either at the famously awe-inspiring Yosemite National Park or at Fisherman’s Wharf on San Francisco’s waterfront, a popular but hardly awesome spot. Only Yosemite made participants from all cultures feel smaller.

Next, the researchers created awe in the lab, showing people awe-inspiring or funny video clips. Again, only the awe clips shrank the circles. The experimenters also asked people to draw circles representing themselves and the people close to them—with the distance between circles indicating how close they felt to others. Feelings of awe elicited more and closer circles; the awe-struck participants felt more social connection to others.

The team also asked people to draw a ladder and represent where they belonged on it—a reliable measure of status. Awe had no effect on where people placed themselves on this ladder—unlike an emotion such as shame, which takes people down a notch in their own eyes. Awe makes us feel less egotistical, but at the same time it expands our sense of well-being rather than diminishing it.

The classic awe-inspiring stimuli in these studies remind people of the vastness of nature: tall evergreens or majestic Yosemite waterfalls. But even very small stimuli can have the same effect. Another image of this season, a newborn child, transcends any particular faith, or lack of faith, and inspires awe in us all.