A new science is now asking “Why awe?” This is a question we can approach in two ways. First we can consider the long, evolutionary view: Why did awe became part of our species’ emotional repertoire during seven million years of hominid evolution? A preliminary answer is that awe binds us to social collectives and enables us to act in more collaborative ways that enable strong groups, thus improving our odds for survival.
For example, in one study from our Berkeley lab, my colleague Michelle Shiota had participants fill in the blank of the following phrase: “ I AM ____.” They did so 20 times, either while standing before an awe-inspiring replica of a T. rex skeleton in UC Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology or in the exact same place but oriented to look down a hallway, away from the T. rex. Those looking at the dinosaur were more likely to define their individual selves in collectivist terms—as a member of a culture, a species, a university, a moral cause. Awe embeds the individual self in a social identity.
Near Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology stands a grove of eucalyptus trees, the tallest in North America. When you gaze up at these trees, with their peeling bark and surrounding nimbus of grayish green light, goosebumps may ripple down your neck, a sure sign of awe...my colleague Paul Piff staged a minor accident near that grove to see if awe would prompt greater kindness...Participants first either looked up into the tall trees for one minute—long enough for them to report being filled with awe—or oriented 90 degrees away to look up at the facade of a large science building. They then encountered a person who stumbled, dropping a handful of pens into the dirt. Sure enough, the participants who had been gazing up at the awe-inspiring trees picked up more pens. Experiencing awe seemed to make them more inclined to help someone in need. They also reported feeling less entitled and self-important than the other study participants did.