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Awe promotes altruistic behavior, UCI-led study finds

Inducing a sense of awe in people can promote altruistic, helpful and positive social behavior, according to new research led by UC Irvine psychologist Paul Piff.

May 19, 2015
Awe promotes altruistic behavior, UCI-led study finds
The outdoors can induce a sense of awe in people that can lead to altruistic behavior, according to new research led by UC Irvine assistant professor of psychology & social behavior Paul Piff. Courtesy of Emilie Raguso

Irvine, Calif., May 19, 2015 – Inducing a sense of awe in people can promote altruistic, helpful and positive social behavior, according to new research led by UC Irvine psychologist Paul Piff.

“Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others,” said Piff, assistant professor of psychology & social behavior. An article on the research appears online today in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association.

Awe is that sense of wonder felt in the presence of something vast that transcends one’s understanding of the world. People commonly experience it in nature but also in response to religion, art and music.

In the article, Piff and his colleagues outline a series of five studies. In the first, the researchers asked a representative sample of more than 1,500 people from across the U.S. to complete a questionnaire that measured how predisposed they were to experiencing awe. The subjects then participated in a game in which they were given 10 raffle tickets and had to decide how many, if any, to share with someone who did not have any tickets. Researchers found a significant association between generosity and the tendency to experience awe.

In the other four experiments, groups of people (ranging in size from 75 to 254) were asked to watch a video or gaze at something in their environment designed to elicit awe, a neutral state or another reaction, such as pride or amusement. The subjects then engaged in an activity that measured what psychologists call pro-social behaviors or tendencies. (Pro-social actions are positive, helpful and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship.) In every experiment, awe was strongly correlated with pro-social behaviors.

The researchers said they believe that awe induces a feeling of being diminished in the presence of something greater than oneself. It is this reduced sense of self that sways focus away from an individual’s need and toward the greater good.

“When experiencing awe, you may not, egocentrically speaking, feel like you’re at the center of the world anymore,” Piff said. “By shifting attention toward larger entities and diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, we reasoned, awe would trigger tendencies to engage in pro-social behaviors that may be costly for you but that benefit and help others.”

While the findings support their initial hypothesis, the researchers were surprised at how consistently different types of awe and different elicitors of awe were able to promote cooperative behavior. In one experiment, they provoked awe by showing droplets of colored water falling into a bowl of milk in slow motion. In another, they created a negative form of awe using a montage of threatening natural phenomena, such as tornadoes and volcanoes. In a final experiment, the researchers induced awe by situating participants in a grove of towering eucalyptus trees.

“Across all these different elicitors of awe, we found the same sort of effects – people felt smaller and less self-important, and they behaved in a more pro-social fashion,” Piff said. “Might awe cause people to become more invested in the greater good, giving more to charity, volunteering to help others, or doing more to lessen their impact on the environment? Our research would suggest that the answer is yes.”

Co-authors on the article are Pia Dietze of New York University, Matthew Feinberg of the University of Toronto, and Daniel Stancato and Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley.

About the American Psychological Association: Based in Washington, D.C., the American Psychological Association is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the U.S. The APA’s membership includes more than 122,500 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, the APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.

About the University of California, Irvine: Currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 30,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $4.8 billion annually to the local economy. For more on UCI, visit www.uci.edu.

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