Psychologists have found that using nature scenes to experimentally induce a sense of awe can reduce the strength of one’s ideological convictions. The findings, which appear in the journal Emotion, provide evidence that the mix of wonder, reverence, and dread we feel in response to the vastness of the world can promote intellectual humility and reduce polarization.
“My interest in this topic was twofold. Firstly, I have a strong interest in the psychology of political polarization; specifically understanding the ways in which the emotions we experience can shift the conviction and extremism with which we hold our own beliefs and the extent to which we experience hostility towards those with opposing beliefs,” said study author Daniel M. Stancato, a doctoral candidate at the University of California and member of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory.
“This probably isn’t news to most, but the divide between Democrats and Republicans in the United States is at its highest level in more than 30 years (perhaps ever). Both the actual and perceived divide along political party lines exacerbate political gridlock, pose barriers to civil dialogue, and contribute to a political environment filled with vitriol and mutual distrust.”
“The second facet of my interest in this topic comes from an increasingly robust line of research from my own lab and others showing that the emotion awe can have a highly unique capacity to make one feel more humble, connected to others, and open to new ideas. Together, it seemed like an ideal extension of this work to understand how awe may serve these roles in the political sphere,” Stancato said.
In three studies with 776 participants, the researchers found that inducing a sense of awe was associated with lower levels of conviction in one’s ideological views.
In the first two studies, which examined attitudes towards capital punishment and racial bias in the criminal justice system, respectively, participants watched either a neutral video clip, a an amusing video clip, or an awe-inducing video clip before reporting how firmly they believed in their views.
In the third study, participants were randomly assigned to either write about a natural scene that caused them to feel awe, a situation that caused them to feel pride, or something they had done recently. They then indicated how much social distance they desired from those who did not share their views on immigration.
“The key takeaway is that experiencing awe — for example through experiences with nature, art, or music — can reduce the level of conviction or intensity with which one holds their beliefs and attitudes towards social and political issues,”
“Now, this may seem inconsequential or even maybe not a good thing; our beliefs about issues facing humanity represent a key part of our identities, and no one would want to (or should) be deprived of that. But the reduced conviction resulting from awe doesn’t seem to make people not care about or change their beliefs (in fact, we see no shift in one’s actual beliefs whatsoever) so much as perceive less distance from and hostility towards those with differing beliefs, thus potentially giving rise to more civil dialogue and regarding contentious issues.”
Like all research, the findings include some caveats. All three studies used nature to invoke a sense of awe in participants. Awe induced from other sources might produce different results.
“We really only studied one kind of awe in these experiments: the awe elicited by viewing video clips of natural stimuli or recalling awe-inspiring experiences in nature,” Stancato explained. “This raises the question of whether other elicitors of awe–for example, inspiring public figures, virtuous individuals within a community, or awe felt at a sporting event or political rally–or particularly extreme awe experiences would produce similar reductions in conviction.”
“It is possible that such experiences could even increase conviction through feelings of enhanced group identity (e.g., it is unlikely that awe experienced at a Donald Trump rally would decrease conviction in the belief that he should be president),” Stancato added. “This illustrates a broader point that there almost certainly are multiple ‘flavors’ of awe, and not all of them are likely to produce the same results.”
The study, “Awe, ideological conviction, and perceptions of ideological opponents“, was authored by Daniel M. Stancato and Dacher Keltner.