In a series of fascinating experiments, Melanie Rudd (Stanford University) and colleagues have shown that inspiring a feeling of awe in their subjects also made them feel that they had more time to do things, made them less materialistic and encouraged to think about volunteering their time to help others.
The really amazing thing was how easy it was to instil such a sense of awe: a TV commercial, a walk down memory lane, or a story about an awe-inspiring view
In the first study, subjects watched "a 60-second commercial for an LCD television. The awe-eliciting commercial depicted people in city streets and parks encountering and interacting with vast, mentally overwhelming, and seemingly realistic images, such as waterfalls, whales, and astronauts in space."
In the second experiment, "participants wrote narratives about a randomly assigned personal experience. Participants in the awe condition read that awe is: ―a response to things perceived as vast and overwhelming that alters the way you understand the world, and wrote about an experience that made them feel awe. Participants in the happiness condition read that happiness is feeling ―contentment or joy, and wrote about an experience that made them feel happy."
And in the third experiment, "participants in the awe condition read a story about ascending the Eiffel Tower and seeing Paris from on high. Participants in the neutral condition read about ascending an unnamed tower and seeing a plain landscape from on high."
Simple things, but all were enough to significantly increase feelings of awe.
And then what happened? Well, in the first experiment, the subjects reported that they felt they had more time available. In the second, they reported feeling less impatient and this in turn led them to be more willing to volunteer their time to help others
The third experiment was particularly interesting. In this one, the participants were offered choices between material possessions and experiences (a watch and Broadway show tickets, a $10 gas card and a $10 movie theater pass, a jacket and a restaurant dinner, a scientific calculator and a professional massage, and a $50 backpack and a $50 iTunes card).
They found that people who read the story about climbing the Eiffel tower were more likely to choose experiences over possessions, but this was entirely due to their perception that they had more time on their hands.
Now, two things struck me when I read this experiment. Firstly, it seems to me that atheists have a great appetite for awe-inspiring stories - in particular, stories about great scientific and engineering feats. Could this in part be a facet of life that in other circumstances could be filled by religion?
Secondly, we know from otherresearch that experiences give greater satisfaction than material possessions. And yet the pursuit of material possessions seem to be a major life goal for many people. Could this be due to our feeling of time depletion - and could that in turn be remedied by stoking up a sense of awe?
Could feats like the recent landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars actually reduce materialism and encourage people to do voluntary work?
Rudd M, Vohs KD, & Aaker J (2012). Awe Expands People's Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being. Psychological science PMID: 22886132