The Power of Awe

By: Jenna Savage

In a recent article, we addressed the subject of daydreaming, and how it can positively affect learning and memory. Like daydreaming, the emotion of awe has not been a prominent area of scientific research or study — until recently. Psychological scientists have now taken an interest in the way awe affects human beings, and new research is showing that it plays an important role in the human experience, the Association for Psychological Science reports.

Awe is considered to be a universal emotion — something all human beings are capable of feeling. According to PsychCentral, awe happens when one experiences or witnesses something powerful. It is characterized by feelings of wonder and surprise, which can intermingle with fear, confusion, and a lack of understanding. As human beings, we are driven by a desire to make sense of the world around us. When we experience something powerful and we need to, as PsychCentral explains, “accommodate” or “alter” our mental comprehension of what we are seeing, then we are in awe.

Interested in determining how awe affects human beings, Melanie Rudd and Jennifer Aaker, psychological scientists with Stanford University Graduate School of Business, and Kathleen Vohs, a psychological scientist with the University Minnesota Carlson School of Management, decided to conduct experiments on the human experience of awe. In doing so, they discovered that awe plays a very important role in human’s lives — it teaches people to help others and to be less materialistic, the Association for Psychological Science reports.

In addition, awe gives human beings the impression that they have more time, which encourages them to be patient and helps influence their perspectives on the present moment. This, in turn, influences decision-making and the way human beings interpret their lives. The effect is positive — after experiencing awe, human beings feel satisfied with their lives.

Awe, therefore, is a healthy experience, and human beings are encouraged to embrace it as an emotion. Whether it makes an individual feel smitten by a natural wonder or causes a person to feel overwhelmed by an impressive piece of art, awe exists to benefit the human experience, and to make human beings feel good about themselves and others.

The full study, entitled, “Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being,” will be published in Psychological Science, which is an Association of Psychological Science journal. In it, Rudd, Aaker, and Vohs describe in detail the methods they used to conduct the study.