Awe refers to an intense emotional response people may have when they encounter an object, event, or person that is extraordinary. Things that elicit awe are typically vast in size, significance, or both. Frequent elicitors of awe include nature, natural disasters, grand architecture and historical ruins, supernatural or spiritual experiences, scientific or technological marvels, childbirth, and being in the presence of powerful or celebrated individuals.
Awe involves some degree of surprise, disbelief, or disorientation as one strives to assimilate the presence of the extraordinary and make it conform to one’s expectations, prior experiences, and beliefs about what is possible. Quite often, awe results in the need to alter existing belief structures—sometimes in profound and life-changing ways—to accommodate the experience and its implications. This process of change and reorientation may take moments or days and can range in tone from pleasant to terrifying, depending on the situation and the individual’s personality.
The roots of the word awe lie in Germanic words for fear and terror, and early religious uses of awe almost always involve fear (as the result of interactions with the Divine). In modern times, however, the word awe is used most often to describe experiences that are positive.
Awe History and Context
Awe has long been associated with religious traditions, which typically emphasize the life-transforming aspects of awe. Numerous religious texts tell stories that center around a moment of awe in the transformation of an ordinary person into a saint, prophet, or hero (e.g., St. Paul in the New Testament, Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita). Upon recovery from the experience, the awe-inspired individuals then go forth and spread word of it, often performing great deeds or miracles that induce awe (and awe-inspired changes) in those who witness or (more typically) hear about them. In modern times, a central moment of awe appears frequently in the religious conversion narratives analyzed by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Indeed, the experience of awe is often so transformative that many people find it fitting to speak of having been “born again” into a new and more harmonious configuration of self.
Some 60 years after William James, Abraham Maslow made major contributions to the literature on awe. Maslow spent years analyzing people’s reports of their encounters with the extraordinary. Maslow used the term peak experience to refer to these moments of deep insight and awe, during which new perspectives are revealed to people. Maslow maintained that all humans are capable of having peak experiences, although some appear to be more prone to them than others. He referred to such people as Peakers (as opposed to non-Peakers) and speculated that they were likely to have greater well-being, deeper relationships, and more meaning in life—predictions that continue to be of great interest to contemporary research psychologists. Maslow also maintained that non-Peakers could learn to become more like Peakers.
Maslow compiled a list of 25 of the most common aftereffects of peak experiences. Included are lack of concern about the self, decreased materialism, feelings of overwhelming positivity (including feelings that the world is good and desirable), transcendence of dichotomies, and increased receptivity to change.
Awe in Contemporary Society and Psychological Research
Awe, and the pursuit of awe, is a major influence on contemporary culture and the world’s economies. People spend billions of dollars per year to visit exotic islands, sacred ruins, grand cathedrals, castles, and national parks. They climb mountains, ride in hot air balloons, sky dive, scuba dive, and take their wide-eyed children to Disney’s Magic Kingdom. One of the best illustrations of the relevance of awe to contemporary culture may be found in Hollywood. A content analysis of the top 100 highest-grossing movies of all time indicates that epic, awe-eliciting movies (such as Lord of the Rings or Star Wars) account for an inordinately high percentage of the top 50 (relative to the bottom 50). Awe is indeed a draw.
While the pursuit of awe has long been a popular pastime, empirical work on awe within the field of psychology is in its infancy. Most of what is known about awe comes from people’s retrospective reports of their experiences. Although such methods can add much to researchers’ knowledge of awe (as was the case with James’s and Maslow’s work), experiments that use random assignment and adequate control conditions are typically preferable. Several emotion theorists have justified the paucity of research on awe by arguing that awe is not a “basic” emotion and is therefore less worthy of attention than are other emotions. The term basic emotion refers to those six emotions (anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise) that have been shown to have a universal facial expression. Numerous emotions not determined to be basic (e.g., love, guilt, shame, and gratitude) have, however, received ample attention within the psychological literature.
One impediment to the experimental study of awe has been the difficulty of eliciting awe in a laboratory setting. Recent technological advances have, however, made such an undertaking more feasible. Research psychologists are currently using digital video, large screen televisions, vast environments, and virtual reality to begin to elicit awe in the lab and study it experimentally with random assignment and adequate control conditions.
Work has also begun to investigate individual differences in responsiveness to awe. A recent theoretical paper by Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt proposes that individuals who are highly responsive to beauty, nature, and human excellence may also be more responsive to awe experiences and may be more likely to seek them. Like the people Maslow dubbed Peakers, those with higher responsiveness are expected to experience greater overall well-being and be more resilient to stress.
Compelling stories about the unique and powerful ability of awe to make people more malleable and receptive to change (both personal and societal) have been documented for millennia. It is only now, however, that research psychologists are beginning to catch up with thinkers in philosophy and religion in studying the emotion of awe.
- James, W. (1963). The varieties of religious experience; a study in human nature. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books.
- Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 297-314.
- Maslow, A. H. (1970). Religions, values, and peak-experiences. New York: Penguin.