Jaw-dropping moments ‘make people nicer’

Behind the Headlines

Monday July 23 2012

Can feelings of awe make you a nicer person?

"Regular awe-inspiring experiences may improve our mental health and make us nicer people," reports The Independent. The newspaper also says that these findings by psychologists suggest that "awe therapy" could be used to "overcome the stressful effects of fast-paced modern life".

So will staring up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel make you more saintly? Maybe, but it's impossible to be sure based on this piece of research.

This story is based on experimental studies that looked at how experiencing awe – either through watching an "awe-inspiring commercial", writing about a personal awe-inspiring experience or reading an awe-inspiring short story – can influence people’s perceptions of time. The experiments also looked at whether participants felt less impatient, more willing to give their time and more satisfied with life as a result of "awe".

These experiments took place in controlled conditions, and perception of time, feelings of altruism and life satisfaction were assessed by surveys. It is not clear to what extent the same results would be obtained in real life situations, how long these feelings last or whether they influence actual behaviour. It is also not possible to say from this study whether feelings of awe have any impact on our mental health or necessarily make people "nicer".

While this study may garner passing interest, it seems to have few practical immediate health-related implications. People feeling pressed for time could perhaps save some time by not reading news articles about the effects of awe.

 

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Stanford University and the University of Minnesota. No sources of funding were reported. The study is due to be published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science. For this appraisal the version of the paper on the Stanford University website was used.

The Independent suggests that awe has an impact on mental health. However, this was not investigated by this study, which only assessed life satisfaction at one point in time.

 

What kind of research was this?

This was a series of randomised controlled experiments in controlled conditions looking at how feeling awe influenced people’s perceptions of time.

The researchers boldly report that time may be the scarcest commodity for many people. Therefore, they wanted to test if they could alter people’s perceptions of how much time is available to them. They decided to look at the effect of awe on time perception, as they considered that encountering something strikingly vast could make people change their patterns of thought. The researchers also looked at whether changing time perception might change people’s decisions relating to time, and their wellbeing.

 

What did the research involve?

The researchers carried out three experiments. The participants were not told the aim of the experiments before they started. They were paid $10 or $20 US for taking part. In all cases they filled out a survey at the end of the experiment, which included “filler questions”, unrelated to the purpose of the experiment. In the surveys, participants rated their agreement with various statements. In all cases there was a question rating their current feelings.

First experiment

The first experiment attempted to test whether awe can affect perceptions of time. The 63 participants were initially given a word-based task intended to make them feel that they were pressed for time. They were then randomised to watch either an awe-inspiring or happiness-inducing 60-second advertisement for an LCD television.

Participants were then asked to complete a survey about personal beliefs. This included four items about their perception of time:

  • “I have lots of time in which I can get things done”
  • “Time is slipping away”
  • “Time is expanded”
  • “Time is boundless”

Second experiment

The second experiment attempted to test whether awe can affect impatience and willingness to volunteer one’s time. The researchers felt this was another way to look at the effect of awe on perception of time. They theorised that people who feel they have more time may be less impatient or more willing to give their time to others.

The 53 participants were randomly assigned to write about either an awe-inspiring or happiness-inducing personal experience. They were then asked to complete a survey, which included a question about feelings of impatience, and four items about volunteering time and donating money to a worthy cause. The question about money was to test whether the participants were feeling more generous as a whole, rather than just with their time.

Third experiment

The third experiment attempted to test whether awe can affect life satisfaction and influence decision-making. The 105 participants read either an awe-inducing short story or a neutral story and were asked to try to feel as the character in the story would have felt. The awe-inducing story involved going up the Eiffel Tower and seeing Paris from on high, the neutral story involved going up an unnamed tower and seeing a plain landscape.

Participants were then asked to complete a survey including questions about time availability and on current life satisfaction (for example, “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole, right now?”). Participants also made a hypothetical choice between different experiences and material goods of equivalent price (such as a watch, theatre tickets, a backpack and an iTunes card).

 

What were the basic results?

Participants in the first, second and third experiments who were randomised to the groups meant to feel awe reported more feelings of awe than the “happy” or “neutral” control groups.

The researchers found that when participants felt awe they felt they had more time available and felt less impatient. Participants who experienced awe were also more willing to volunteer their time to help others, preferred experiences over material products and reported greater life satisfaction at that point in time. Statistical analyses suggested that the changes in decision-making and wellbeing were due to awe’s effects on time perception. Participants who experienced the awe-inspiring story were not more willing to donate money than those who experienced the neutral control story.

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded that, “experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, which underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise”. They say that the findings “underscore the importance and promise of cultivating awe in everyday life”.

 

Conclusion

This study suggests that feelings of awe can influence perceptions of time, and increase wellbeing. The main limitation to these findings is that the experiments were carried out under research conditions and it is unclear whether these experimental scenarios reflect what happens when we experience awe in real life. Also, it is unclear to what extent these short-term changes in time perception, life satisfaction and feelings of altruism would last, or what effect, if any, they would have on mental health.

It is worth noting that these experiments looked at very subjective matters such as "awe" and "happiness", and these emotions may mean different things to different people.

There is also no specific suggestion of developing these findings into “awe therapy” in the research.

While this study may garner passing interest, it seems to have few practical implications. People feeling pressed for time could perhaps save some time by not reading news articles about the effects of awe.

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on twitter.

Links to the headlines

‘Awe is good for mental health, study claims’. The Independent, July 23 2012

Links to the science

Rudd M, Vohs KD, Aaker J. Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being. Psychological Science. Published online July 23 2012

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Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices