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The science of psych

Awe Increases Religious Belief

The sense of awe leads to a sense of the divine.

In February of 1971, Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell was on his way back from the moon when he had an epiphany. Staring out the window at the stars, he realized that everything is connected. The experience was so “puzzling and powerful,” he told me, that upon touchdown he launched a quest into what it was all about, seeking the wisdom of mystics and holy men around the world. He wasn’t alone in his spiritual awakening; an analysis of astronauts’ reports reveals that for many, the awesomeness of spaceflight increased their belief in God. New research may explain why.

The emotion of awe has been described by the psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt as a combination of two elements: a sense of vastness—in terms of size or power or prestige—and a “need for accommodation”—a desire to somehow accommodate the experience into one’s worldview. When you look at the Grand Canyon, the scale of the thing overwhelms you, and its magnificence challenges you to find some explanation for its existence. In other words: Wow! How? 

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This disorientation sets the stage for magical thinking. Humans tend to flee from uncertainty, and they respond to it by looking for patterns in the world. They sometimes see patterns where none exist, and those patterns sometimes involve supernatural phenomena. Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky have reported that making subjects feel out of control leads them to see shapes in random noise, to see false correlations in financial reports, to see coincidences as conspiracies, and to rely on superstitious actions.

One important signal we often look for amid the world’s noise is a sign of agency—another mind. Aaron Kay and colleagues have found that when people feel out of control they’re more likely to believe in a controlling God, an agent who can restore order to the universe. When chaos reigns you reach for a guiding hand.

If awe reduces a sense of certainty, then it should also lead to pattern-finding and thus greater religious belief. This reasoning prompted the new studies, by Piercarlo Valdesolo of Claremont McKenna College and Jesse Graham of the University of Southern California, currently in press at Psychological Science.

In the first experiment, subjects watched one of three five-minute videos: an awe-inspiring one (a clip of the nature-porn TV show Planet Earth), an amusing one (a clip of the British sketch comedy show Walk on the Wild Side), or a neutral one (a Mike Wallace interview—which may have been awe-inspiring if you’re a card-carrying Wallace-head (not a real thing)). They rated how much the video generated a sense of awe, as well as seven other emotions: happiness, amusement, sadness, fear, anger, gratitude, and disgust. They also rated their belief in “supernatural control,” by evaluating sentences such as “The events that occur in this world unfold according to God’s, or some other non-human entity’s, plan.” Finally, they rated their belief in God and their belief in a set of other supernatural phenomena—curses, ghosts, miracles, and angels.

Compared with the funny and neutral videos, the nature video induced a greater sense of awe, greater belief in supernatural control, and greater belief in God. (It also increased belief in the other supernatural phenomena, but not consistently enough to report in the paper, Valdesolo tells me.) What’s more, the nature video’s effect on belief in supernatural control was due to a sense of awe—and not any of the other emotions.

The second experiment was similar, but after watching either Planet Earth or Mike Wallace, participants also rated their intolerance of uncertainty, by evaluating items including “I feel uncomfortable when I don’t understand the reason why an event occurred in my life.” The researchers found that awe’s effect on belief in supernatural control was due to an increased intolerance for uncertainty. Planet Earth unsettled the subjects enough that they went looking for something to reestablish certainty in life, and they found God, or one of his cronies.

Of course a supernatural mind isn’t the only kind that can bring order to the world. Human minds do a decent job in their own way. We created language and cities and British sketch comedy. So the next study examined how broad our awe-induced search for meaning becomes. Instead of rating belief in supernatural control, subjects saw strings of random digits and rated how much they thought the strings were random or human-generated. This measure is a simple proxy for, say, conspiracy theorizing—connecting the dots. The nature video increased a sense of awe, and this awe then increased the perception of intentional design in those numbers.

The fourth experiment extended the third by showing that the effect of awe (from Planet Earth) on the perception of human agency (in the numbers) was due to increased uncertainty intolerance. The natural world is so perturbingly mysterious that we deny that a string of digits is random, just so something is nailed down.

So is it all about the How? What about the Wow? In studies 2 and 4, the researchers found that intolerance of ambiguity accounted for awe’s effect on both belief in supernatural control and the detection of human agency—but only partly. They suggest their measure of uncertainty intolerance could have limitations, but in a footnote they leave open the possibility of another mechanism through which awe increases superstition and suspicion. I propose that one mechanism is the triggering of an intuitive mindset. 

When you’re blown away by a starry sky or the Grand Canyon or an epic guitar solo, I suspect your approach to the world becomes slightly less logical. Experiences of vastness and wonder tend to inspire poetry, not equations. And numerous studies report that intuitive thinking increases religious and supernatural belief. We have biases to see patterns and meaning and agency in the world, and the less rationally you think, the less likely you are to second-guess those biases. Awe might just let the spiritual floodgates open.

The experience of awe leads to magical thinking, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also lead to scientific thinking. Once you’re done writing your poetry, you may still be driven to write the equations or conduct the experiments that will explain what you’ve just witnessed. We all have the Wow! We just choose our own ways of answering the How?

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

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