Awe Experiences Decrease Political Polarization

New research shows a unique way to address political polarization.

Posted Feb 22, 2021

As my wife and I walked from the front doors to the worship center of the exponentially growing church we used to attend in the mid-1990s, we often remarked how much relational tension filled the hallways. Young couples frequently walked together in silence, their faces sometimes providing brief glimpses of the irritation they felt toward each other. Moms and dads regularly yelled at kids to get them to Sunday school. Friends and acquaintances mostly kept to themselves.   

People had good reason for waking up early on a Sunday morning to pack the auditorium. The young preacher challenged us with mind-stretching insights that directly applied to our lives. The band led us into worship experiences that connected us with God in ways that melted our selves into something larger.

During these times of shared praise, in particular, emotion poured out of many. I often cried during songs, for example, tears pouring down my face. Sometimes, I’d be unable to continue singing, in fact, feeling so choked up. There were even a few times when I felt so overwhelmed I had to physically brace myself with the chair in front of me because I was literally “weak in the knees.”

When we left the worship space, my wife and I frequently commented how those around us seemed palpably different than when they arrived. Not everything was perfect, of course, but tension had lifted. Young couples looked more in love, holding hands on their way out the door. Families played. Others welcomed conversation over coffee and donuts.

If this had been a one-time occurrence, I may not have thought much of it. But, it was so predictable, it was almost comical. Pretty much every week, the same basic story unfolded: people were being transformed.

Maybe the most notable observation we made, though, at least in retrospect, occurred when we left the church building and walked back to our car. The parking lot typically was much fuller than when we arrived, and we often were struck by the range of political bumper stickers. Frequently, we’d see people part ways in the parking lot with a handshake or hug, only to enter cars with stickers suggesting different political affiliations. 

As a young Ph.D. student studying psychology at the University of Minnesota at the time, I wondered: What might help account for the powerful positive effects we were observing? Nothing in psychological science seemed capable of providing a good explanation.

Twenty-five years later, we’re in a different place. The United States increasingly demonstrates extreme political polarization, culminating in the recent January 6th attack on the Capital Building, led by a group composed at least partly of Christian nationalists who apparently had no problem both chanting “Hang Mike Pence” and “worshipping” Jesus in prayer, song, and signage. A new science of awe also has developed, helping to account for my past church observations and suggesting one way for our country to heal.

In general, this emerging science suggests how the experience of awe decreases self-focus and inspires a desire to bond with others. For instance, in a publication released recently by the American Psychological Association, University of California – Berkeley researchers review past studies showing how:

“Awe leads to increased humility, a diminished sense of self, an increased awareness of how one is embedded in social networks, and an awareness of shared humanity with others.”

Building on this past research, the Berkeley scientists conducted three new studies testing the hypothesis that even brief whiffs of awe lead to reduced ideological conviction. In one study, for example, research participants were randomly assigned to write about an experience of awe, pride, or a recent neutral event (thereby priming these emotions). Later, they were asked how happy they would be to have someone who did not share their views on immigration be a neighbor, to come and work at the same place they do, to be a spiritual advisor, and other indicators of “social distance.” Results showed how awe decreases a desire for distance from those with divergent ideological views.

I don’t want to be reductionistic here – suggesting the effects of profound life experiences can be simply “explained away” – but I don’t believe I am. In fact, the texts and sacred stories of many religious and spiritual traditions – such as in the Bible, for instance – paint a similar picture: awe transforms.  

Perhaps part of the increased polarization in the United States stems from a shifting awe landscape. For example, according to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who say they “seldom” or “never” attend religious services has increased from 38% to 54% in the past 25 years. American religious groups increasingly reflect political ideologies, with many Christian denominations and individual churches, for instance, more strongly aligned with the positions of one political party or another. Some Christians appear to have traded their awe of God for an awe of former President Trump – or found a way to intertwine the two – potentially limiting the bonding effects of awe to one strong political ingroup.

The pandemic further contributes to a loss of awe. Opportunities to be “moved” by other people, at large group gatherings, by music, and at in-person religious services have plummeted during this time.

Unsplash | Timon Studler
Source: Unsplash | Timon Studler

In spite of these challenges, however, the new research on awe reported here provides hope. We can seek everyday sources of awe to help break down walls. In particular, similar to the positive effects of meaningful contact across groups or the positive effects of groups mutually pursuing superordinate goals, sharing moments of awe with those from different political affiliations may have important depolarizing effects. Although other strategies also are needed for political depolarization to occur, perhaps times in which individuals can be mutually overwhelmed by the vastness of great natural or moral beauty is one of the best remedies for coming together as a people.

References

Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2021). Awe, idiological conviction, and perceptions of idiological opponents. Emotion21, 61-72.