Can a Sense of Awe Improve Our Arguments?

Feeling awe can make us more humble and tolerant toward political opponents, a new study suggests.

By Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
By Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Awe is the feeling we get when we ponder the vastness and beauty of our universe. It’s something we might feel when gazing up at a scenic mountain range or experiencing the birth of our first child. Awe is an experience that can make us happier, more creative, and more generous, according to recent research.

new study suggests that experiencing awe has an additional benefit: It may reduce social and political polarization. This seems to happen because awe makes us more humble, which in turn makes it easier for us to get along with people with whom we might disagree about fundamental issues.

UC Berkeley researchers Daniel Stancato and Dacher Keltner (the GGSC’s founding director) set out to research how awe can help people feel connected to each other and, perhaps, reduce social polarization. In a set of three experiments, they induced awe in participants, by showing them a time-lapse video of the night sky and by asking them to recall a time when they experienced awe in the past. Participants in two other groups watched a neutral video clip or one that elicited amusement.

The researchers then measured the sense of conviction participants in all three groups felt around specific issues, as well as their antagonism toward people who didn’t share their convictions. These issues included capital punishment, racial bias in policing, and immigration. They also explored how people felt about engaging with political opponents, asking participants to imagine someone with the opposite political views as a neighbor, as one example.

The result? Inducing awe seemed to increase participants’ humility and decrease their desire for social distance from their political opponents. The researchers didn’t observe the same effects in the groups who watched the neutral and amusing video clips.

“What we found is that people experiencing awe expressed less conviction and less certainty in their own beliefs,” Stancato says. “And that in turn predicted the extent to which they would be more likely to say, ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t be so upset if I had a coworker who felt differently than me. Or if I had a roommate who felt differently than me.’” These results are consistent with a previous study by Keltner and colleagues, which found that experiencing awe can strengthen relationships.

So, what can we do on a day-to-day basis to experience the sort of awe that makes us more humble as individuals and less socially polarized as a society?

Stancato says that what causes people to experience awe can be very subjective, as different people will experience it in different places and at different times. But Americans frequently say that they experience awe in the great outdoors, by viewing “grand views of night skies or of . . . vast landscapes,” says Stancato.

“It’s important for people to find out what elicits that emotion in you,” he suggests. “It could be architecture, it could be art, it could be music.”

Not everybody has the time or resources to take a trip to a majestic waterfall or cavernous valley to cultivate awe. But there are some simple ways to discover awe that are accessible to a wide range of people. You could, for instance, read the biography of someone who inspires you. You could visit an art museum, history museum, or science museum to encounter exhibits and displays that broaden your horizons. You could also simply spend time with a young child, learning to see the world through their eyes.

You can find awe everywhere and anywhere. When you do, the research suggests, you might find that you have more in common with other people than you thought.

Originally published in Greater Good Magazine.

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