Inspired: How Awe Affects Our Decisions

Feelings of awe and wonder make us feel smaller, but richer in time. This affects our decisions in several interesting ways.

Awe is a powerful emotion that we feel when we encounter something so strikingly vast (grand, beautiful, or powerful) that it overwhelms our mental capacity. Some researchers describe such vastness as “provoking a need to update one’s mental schemas”, while the rest of us might more succinctly call it mind-blowing. These feelings can be induced experimentally, for example by having research participants stand in a grove of towering trees or looking at stunning images of the sky, space or landscapes.

It turns out feelings of awe have interesting effects on decision making.

For one, feelings of awe can lead to more ethical decisions, more generosity, as well as more compassion. For instance, research participants who experienced awe were more willing to volunteer their time to help others.

Another effect is that people who experienced awe preferred investing money into experiences rather than into material products. As I discussed in an earlier post, this is a decision pattern that can lead to more satisfaction and well-being.

How Awe Affects Our Decisions

Why does awe have these effects on our decisions?

One reason is probably that awe expands our sense of time. Research participants who experienced awe, felt they had more time available and were less impatient. This kind of expanded time perception certainly influences decisions. For example, not having enough time is an often-cited reason for not engaging in leisure activities, and so a sense of abundant time could well help people choose experiences over material goods. Time perception also affects moral choices: people act more helpfully towards others if they have extra time on their hands, rather than feeling rushed.

Another explanation is that feelings of awe lead to feelings of a “small self”. For example, taking in the vastness of a natural landscape can make us feel small and insignificant, which could explain why people feel less of a sense of entitlement after experiencing feelings of awe. Being reminded of our own smallness may help us take ourselves and our concerns a bit less seriously and focus on others instead.

How Awe Affects Our Decisions

Warning: Side-Effects

The experience of awe has one more effect that we should be aware of: it increases our supernatural beliefs. The reason for this might be that awe lowers our sense of control over the world, and when feelings of personal control are low, people turn to supernatural explanations, as a means of lowering the uncertainty and restoring a sense of control. Feelings of awe do indeed lower people’s tolerance for uncertainty, and people who have a low tolerance of uncertainty are more prone to magical thinking and superstitious behavior.

by Ursina Teuscher (PhD), at Teuscher Decision Coaching, Portland OR


Selected References:
Case, T. I., Fitness, J., Cairns, D. R., & Stevenson, R. J. (2004). Coping With Uncertainty: Superstitious Strategies and Secondary Control1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34(4), 848–871.
Darley, J. M., & Batson, C. D. (1973). “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(1), 100–108.
Kay, A. C., Gaucher, D., McGregor, I., & Nash, K. (2010). Religious Belief as Compensatory Control. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 37–48.
Keinan G. (1994). Effects of stress and tolerance of ambiguity on magical thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 48–55.
Keinan G. (2002). The effects of stress and desire for control on superstitious behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 102–108.
Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(6), 883–899.
Rudd, M., Vohs, K. D., & Aaker, J. (2012). Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1130–1136.
Shiota, M., Keltner, D., & Mossman, A. (2007). The nature of awe. Cognition and Emotion, 21(5).
Valdesolo, P., & Graham, J. (2013). Awe, Uncertainty, and Agency Detection. Psychological Science, 956797613501884.
Van Boven, L., & Gilovich, T. (2003). To Do or to Have? That Is the Question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(6), 1193–1202.

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