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Wow! One Key Unlocks the Amazing Power of Awe

Self-distancing via a “small self” is key to experiencing the benefits of awe.

Sindre Strøm/Pexels
Source: Sindre Strøm/Pexels

We all know the jaw-dropping feeling of a breathtaking “wow!” moment that sends shivers down your spine and makes you feel wonderfully small in relation to something magnificently awesome. In a 2015 study, Paul Piff of the University of California, Irvine School of Social Ecology published a landmark paper about this phenomenon, “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior." The researchers found that being in awe of something greater than oneself can promote loving-kindness and magnanimous behavior.

Experiencing a sense of wonder in the presence of something vast that transcends one's understanding of the world can change how individuals treat one another. As Piff et al. explain, “Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others. When experiencing awe, you may not, egocentrically speaking, feel like you're at the center of the world anymore.”

Recently, Mark Seery of the University of Buffalo and colleagues at the University of Essex in the UK conducted a study that identifies a key for unlocking the amazing power of awe when facing an obstacle that could be viewed as either a challenge or a threat. This soon-to-be-published paper, “When a Small Self Means Manageable Obstacles: Spontaneous Self-Distancing Predicts Divergent Effects of Awe During a Subsequent Performance Stressor,” is currently in press at the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The “Small Self” Is Vital When Tapping Into the Spectacular Power of Awe

Albin Berlin/Pexels
Source: Albin Berlin/Pexels

The hypothesis behind this research was that self-distancing is imperative for awe to have a positive effect and to make daunting obstacles seem like non-threatening challenges. On the flip side, if someone is completely self-immersed, the experience of something much bigger than him or her can take on a “boogeyman” quality that elicits fear and makes challenging obstacles seem threatening. The authors explain their hypothesis, “In the face of awe, focusing less on the self (self-distanced perspective) should make obstacles in particular seem trivial, whereas focusing more on the self (self-immersed) should lead one's capabilities to seem insignificant.”

Under the biopsychosocial model of challenge/threat: “Challenge” is a positive state in which someone evaluates a stressor as manageable; this state causes arteries to dilate, which helps the heart pump more blood throughout the body. Conversely, the “threat” perspective of an obstacle creates a negative psychobiological state in which someone evaluates a stressor as unmanageable; this state constricts the arteries and hinders blood flow.

For their recent study on awe, the University of Buffalo researchers created an experiment in which 186 participants were each exposed to an awe-inducing video followed by an obstacle that could be perceived as either a threat or a challenge depending on whether someone took a self-distanced or self-immersed perspective. Their results showed that the key to unlocking the fantastic powers of awe was directly tied to one’s sense of "small self" or lack thereof.

The bottom line of this research reinforces the importance of taking a “fly-on-the-wall” perspective in which you are not completely self-absorbed. For example, you could say to yourself, “Although I feel small, I am connected to humanity.” Or as Alice Walker writes in her poem Expect Nothing, "Discover the reason why so tiny human midget exists at all."

 Courtesy of NASA
A NASA camera on the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite returned its first view of the entire sunlit side of Earth from one million miles away in 2015.
Source: Courtesy of NASA

This vantage point is experienced during the so-called “overview effect” when astronauts look down on Earth and realize how small our presence is in the universe while simultaneously being overwhelmed by a sense of oneness among all living things on this fragile "pale blue dot" hanging in the void of space. (For more on this see, “Wow! The Life-Changing Power of Awe.”)

In conclusion, Seery said in a statement, "Creating that sense of 'small self' is to feel small relative to some awe-inspiring thing, whether it's the idea of a divinity or a natural landscape. To maximally benefit from awe when facing subsequent stressors, we may need to take a step back from ourselves before we take it all in.”


Phuong Q. Le, Thomas L. Saltsman, Mark D. Seery, Deborah E. Ward, Cheryl L. Kondrak, Veronica M. Lamarche.”When a Small Self Means Manageable Obstacles: Spontaneous Self-Distancing Predicts Divergent Effects of Awe During a Subsequent Performance Stressor.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (First available online: July 27, 2018) DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2018.07.010

Paul K. Piff, Pia Dietze, Matthew Feinberg, Daniel M. Stancato, Dacher Keltner. "Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (First published: May 19, 2015) DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000018

David B. Yaden, Jonathan Iwry, Kelley J. Slack, Johannes C. Eichstaedt, Yukun Zhao, George E. Vaillant, Andrew B. Newberg, "The Overview Effect: Awe and Self-Transcendent Experience in Space Flight" Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice (First published: March 11, 2016) DOI: 10.1037/cns0000086

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