Research published earlier this year seems to indicate that when we’re “awed,” we’re more likely to engage in prosocial or altrusitic behaviour. The researchers conducted five different studies:
Individuals higher in dispositional tendencies to experience awe exhibited more generosity in an economic game (Study 1). Experimentally inducing awe caused individuals to endorse more ethical decisions (Study 2), to be more generous to a stranger (Study 3), and to report more prosocial values (Study 4). A naturalistic induction of awe in which participants looked up at a grove of towering trees led to increased helpfulness, greater ethicality, and decreased entitlement (Study 5).
There’s so much to unpack in these findings. Experiencing awe can make us more generous, more ethical, more altruistic, more helpful, and less entitled. These findings have implications for a number of areas, not the least of which, is essentially, creating a roadmap for how to be a better person.
As someone who often trumpets the importance of perspective, I was pleased to read the following from the discussion section:
It would seem, as hypothesized, that awe leads to more prosocial tendencies by broadening the individual’s perspective to include entities vaster and more powerful than oneself and diminishing the salience of the individual self.
So, maybe instead of writing articles highlighting different perspectives, I should be writing fiction (or articles) that allow you to experience a sense of awe?
In thinking about the findings of this research, I’d be very interested to see how it plays out in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. I imagine that the results would probably still hold, but it’d be great to have confirmation of that. Furthermore, I’d be interested to see how economists would incorporate this into our understanding of the “rational actor.” If we’re experiencing awe and, as a result, becoming more prosocial, it would — theoretically — begin to wreak havoc on the idea that we’re acting rationally (as it takes a laboured interpretation of the rational actor to include prosocial behaviour).
Just for good measure, here’s a second picture that I hope allows you to feel a sense of awe.
Piff PK, Dietze P, Feinberg M, Stancato DM, & Keltner D (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 108 (6), 883-99 PMID: 25984788