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Don’t Be Too Smart for Awe

This transient sensation lessens the power of biases toward selfishness.

Key points

  • The pursuit of awe tends to be a blind spot in most academic research, even in psychology.
  • Awe has been identified as the fastest and most powerful method for personal change and growth.
  • Awe is a worthy target function for businesses hoping to turn the page on an era of capitalism that has perhaps caused more harm than good.
Вячеслав Немченко/Pexels
Source: Вячеслав Немченко/Pexels

I just returned from a memorable trip to England, the primary purpose of which was to give an invited talk at Cambridge for a conference on “Repurposing Management for the Public Good.” My contribution focused on “awe,” leading to the rather rare occasion when several day-to-day experiences directly echoed and reinforced the research I was presenting.

Walking through the 1,000-year-old campus, enveloped by a sense of awe, I simply couldn’t help but think differently than when wandering the streets back home. And in the days prior, finding myself in London just after the queen passed, whatever one’s politics or thoughts on the monarchy, I couldn’t help but feel in awe of the miles-long queue of humanity peacefully, respectfully, and quietly waiting to pay tribute to a lifetime of service and tradition.

In that environment, convincing the room that the pursuit of awe should be a key corporate target function if we are going to make work more human-friendly wasn’t a hard sell. We were all “in the zone,” if you will. Yet too often folks are too guarded, self-assured, and overly convinced that they have seen it all to be open to the experience of awe.

A History of Ignoring Awe

There is a long and well-established precedent in business thinking for other human-centric constructs, like meaning and connection. But the goal of facilitating awe has been less than an afterthought.

Writing way back in the 1970s, well before the digital revolution, Abraham Joshua Heschel lamented that with technological advancements and social progress, our collective sense of awe declines. More recently, author Douglas Coupland worried that when we know that all the information that exists in the world can be accessed instantly by the tiny devices in our pockets, world-weariness creates a disincentive for doing so. He labeled this malaise “omniscience fatigue,” the burnout that comes with being able to know the answer to almost anything online.

Consequently, the pursuit of awe tends to be a blind spot in most academic research, even in psychology. Writing back in 2001, Keltner & Haidt wondered if the reason awe gets ignored by psychologists is that there was no associated distinct facial expression. In that regard, research has advanced some, finding the unique facial expression associated with awe to include widened eyes, raised inner eyebrows, and a relaxed, open mouth.

Pixabay/Pexels
Source: Pixabay/Pexels

Awe Keeps Us Still

Shiota and colleagues found that while most positive emotions are arousing, awe has the opposite effect, reducing sympathetic influence on the heart and keeping us still. Awe is a complex emotion characterized by perceived vastness and the need for cognitive accommodation. We first encounter stories of awe in religious discussions about the relationship of the finite to the infinite. Philosophers explore awe in relation to the sublime, described by Edmund Burke as the feeling of expanded thought that is produced when one encounters great art or natural phenomena.

Awe impacts the perception of self, reducing its perceived significance. Awe affords an opportunity to reflect on one’s life and reassess one’s value as a person, identified as being the fastest and most powerful method for personal change and growth. It is thus a worthy target function for businesses hoping to turn the page on an era of capitalism that has perhaps caused more harm than good.

Awe Inspires Change

A feeling of awe emerges when our existing abilities to neatly explain what we are seeing fail us. Awe is a fleeting experience of the world that lets us concretely know how little we know. And this may be the biggest obstacle to awe today: We are too sure of what we know. We are too smart to be open to awe.

As part of a multifaceted corporate target function, awe can set the aspirational goal for firms to figure out how their creative activities can inspire stakeholders to change the way they think about themselves and their place in the world.

This transient sensation shifts long-term attention to bigger ideas and deeper attachments, lessening the power of biases toward greed and selfishness. This shift is critical to enabling the type of transformative cooperation required to repurpose management for the public good.

References

Campos, B., Shiota, M.N., Keltner, D., Gonzaga, G.C. & Goetz, J.L. 2013. What is shared, what is different? Core relational themes and expressive displays of eight positive emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 27: 37-52.

Chirico, A. &Yaden, D. B. 2018. Awe: A self-transcendent and sometimes transformative emotion. In H. C. Lench (Ed.), The function of emotions (pp. 221–233). Springer International Publishing, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-77619-4_11.

Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. 2003. Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17: 297–314.

Shiota, M.N., Neufeld, S.L., Yeung, W.H., Moser, S.E. & Perea, E.P. 2011. Feeling good: autonomic nervous system responding in five positive emotions. Emotion, 11: 1368-78.

Weitzner, D. 2021. Connected Capitalism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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