Monument Valley (Thinkstock)
Feeling small, in awe of nature, makes people more generous
April 21, 2016
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From the majestic towers of Monument Valley to the stars painted on the ceiling of Grand Central Station, awe-inspiring wonders are all around. Sometimes taking a moment to stop and appreciate something like the Grand Canyon or a clear, starry night can make you feel like a tiny part of a massive universe swirling around. That sensation of being a small speck might actually make you a kinder, more generous person.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines awe. It is "a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder." Now comes the research. It was done by teams from the University of California Berkeley and UC Irvine. They found that experiencing awe might make people help each other out more.
"Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function." So said Paul Piff in a statement. He is an assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine. "By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others."
After exposing participants to images of nature (and video clips from the BBC series Planet Earth), Piff and his team asked questions. The researchers measured ethical behavior. And they measured generosity. Those who reported feeling a sense of awe or recalled a time when they felt awe demonstrated more ethical behavior as opposed to someone who felt pride. This is according to Adam Hoffman, writing for the Greater Good Science Center.
This wasn't just about pretty images of animals. After all, awe is defined partly by the fear one feels in the face of something larger than themselves. In fact, the same generous behavior was observed in people who were shown scenes of natural disasters. That's according to Hoffman. Whether it was watching scenes of the Amazonian rainforest or a violent volcanic eruption, participants were more willing to share resources with each other afterwards.
Awe doesn't just inspire ethical behavior. Recent studies suggest that experiencing awe may boost your immune system. And it could make you feel more creative, too. It can even make you feel that you have more time to get things done.
"When people experience awe they really want to share that experience with other people, suggesting that it has this particularly viral component to it," Piff tells Hoffman. "Maybe this is yet another way that awe binds people together - by causing people to want to share their positive experiences collectively with one another."
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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why do we think of nature as “big?”
Write your answers in the comments section below