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Wandering Into Wonder

Understanding the intersection of personality and awe.

Source: kdshutterman/Shutterstock

"Look at the moon," I exclaimed. As my family brushed off my profound excitement with their "Cool, Mom," retorts, I began to wonder about wonder. What makes some people feel deeply moved by nature, art, and music?

What is awe?

Conceptualized as a sense of wonder, amazement, or fascination, awe is a complex emotion associated with deep and personal change. The experience of this multifaceted sensation is atypical, powerful, and memorable. People who experience awe are intensely moved and often propelled toward a feeling of self-transcendence—becoming aware they are one minor part of a larger whole.

Historically described and discussed by philosophers and spiritual leaders, awe was not a formal area of study within the field of psychology until 2003 when Keltner and Haidt wrote about this mysterious emotion. Awe appears to be a discrete emotion that encourages us to take in and process novel, complex information about our environment. Please see my previous post, "Inspire Your Mind," for an in-depth description of awe.

Why do we experience awe?

The reasons we experience awe are still under investigation, but research suggests at least three evolutionarily adaptive reasons humans may experience awe:

  1. Awe encourages us to feel connected to others by moving our focus outward. The shift in focus increases our prosocial behavior, which in turn likely increases our survival.
  2. The experience of awe encourages creativity by requiring us to step into uncertainty and recalibrate our understanding of the world. Therefore, awe may be a key to spark innovation and human progress.
  3. From a physiological perspective, the experience of awe improves immune function by decreasing cytokines in our bloodstream, helping us to reduce our stress levels.

What elicits awe?

According to Keltner and Haidt (2003), awe experiences are generally characterized by two phenomena: perceived vastness and need for accommodation.

Vastness refers to literally large phenomena, like the Grand Canyon. However, vastness can also be conceptualized as an encounter with someone who has immense prestige or learning of a complex idea, such as the Theory of Relativity.

The need for accommodation is akin to famed developmental psychologist Jean Piaget's description of how children undergo developmental changes by altering mental schema—or cognitive structures—in an effort to process novel information. Experiences that cause us to update mental schemas and utilize analytical abilities—rather than heuristics—to process information often elicit awe.

How is personality connected to awe?

Some people—like me—are more frequently awe-struck than others. I get goosebumps at the summit of a mountain or when witnessing a beautiful sunset. I am often moved to tears when I encounter beauty in the physical world or in connection with other people. Profound ideas, art, and music also significantly affect my emotional state.

Why do some people have a higher propensity to experience awe?

Researchers turn to the study of personality—what makes us who we are—to better understand the reasons certain people are more awe-prone. Defined as our characteristic pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting, personality explains who we are despite daily changes in moods and emotions.

While many theories of personality have been put forth by psychologists, the most well-researched and supported trait taxonomy to understand the components of personality is the Big Five model.

A brief history of the Big Five Model

In the 1970s, researchers Paul Costa and Robert McCrae set out to understand the best way to conceptualize human personality traits. They asked thousands of people hundreds of questions across broad areas of human behavior. Then, they utilized a statistical procedure to understand which questions were highly related (correlated) to each other. Their results indicated that human personality traits across cultures can be categorized into five broad independent dimensions of personality known as the Big Five:

  1. Conscientiousness: the tendency to be responsible, organized, and hard-working.
  2. Agreeableness: the tendency to be cooperative, kind, and friendly.
  3. Neuroticism: the tendency toward anxiety, depression, and negative feelings.
  4. Openness to Experience: receptivity to new ideas or experiences.
  5. Extraversion: the tendency to draw energy from being around other people.

The Big Five is a dimensional system, meaning people are not either-or, but rather toward one end of each trait spectrum or another. Evidence suggests that the Big Five are universal, highly reliable, and generally stable throughout adulthood. They appear to be strongly influenced by genetic mechanisms, with each of the five dimensions showing approximately 40% heritability. Many genes, of small effect, combine to shape our traits according to behavioral genetics research.

Of significance, the five dimensions are related to many important life outcomes, such as academic achievement, occupational success, divorce, socioeconomic status, and cognitive ability.

The Big Five and awe

Recent research investigated the relationship between personality and awe. To test out the association of awe and the Big Five traits, researchers created a two-phase study that evaluated how participants reacted to the following:

  1. Viewing awe-evoking images of the sky and space from the NASA Photojournal site and NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day site.
  2. Listening to awe-eliciting music. The researchers also utilized the NEO FFI to measure individuals' personality traits according to the Big Five model.

The results of the study indicated that, of the Big Five characteristics, only Openness to Experience significantly predicted the experience of awe for both the images of space and music. The other four personality factors had smaller, non-significant relationships to awe.

The researchers contended that:

"Beyond the knowledge and values that they bring to art, people high in Openness to Experience bring a propensity to experience emotions that are rarely experienced by people low in Openness."

Closing thoughts

"Wonder is the first of all passions." — Aristotle

If you are a selenophile, embrace your lunar-loving personality. Your sense of wonder in response to the beauty of the world is evolutionarily adaptive and may be a key to human innovation and altruism. Your awe-prone nature may be a fundamental part of who you are—at the core of your personality.

I will continue to navigate my environment accepting my openness to experiences and passion for the world around me—always being on the lookout for the presence of wonder, big or small.

Perhaps someday in the future, I will go beyond saying, "Look at the moon!" and travel there to experience the ultimate awe-elicitor.