Research & Insights

The Power of Awe in Increasing Generosity

New research suggests that increasing pro-social behaviors like generosity may be as simple as reminding people that they are part of something larger than themselves.

Researchers Paul K. Piff of the University of California, Irvine; Pia Dietze of New York University; Matthew Feinberg of the University of Toronto; and Daniel M. Stancato and Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley were interested in whether a sense of awe – the “feeling of being diminished in the presence of something greater than the self” – could be linked to positive traits like generosity. They designed a series of five experiments to test this idea, and published the results in a 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The first experiment involved over 1,500 participants in a nationally-representative study. The study asked participants how often they felt a sense of awe in their life. They then had the participants play a game in which they were given raffle tickets and asked whether they wanted to share their tickets with a partner who had none. The researchers found that participants who said they felt a lot of awe in their life were more generous with the tickets.

The other experiments tested whether increasing a sense of awe would make a person more generous than he or she would have been otherwise. For instance, in one version of the study, participants were asked to watch one of three 5-minute video clips. One clip was of funny animals and designed to produce an amused reaction, one clip was of majestic nature scenes and designed to produce awe, and a third clip – the study’s control – was of a person building a kitchen cabinet. The participants then took part in a similar raffle-ticket sharing activity which asked them to share their tickets with another participant who had none.

In all of the studies, the researchers found that pro-social behaviors were increased in participants who saw the awe-inspiring nature scenes. “Experimentally inducing awe caused individuals to endorse more ethical decisions…to be more generous to a stranger…and to report more prosocial values,” the researchers note.

“[A]we leads to more prosocial tendencies by broadening the individual’s perspective to include entities vaster and more powerful than oneself and diminishing the salience of the individual…” they add. In other words, feeling awe at, say, a grove of tall trees, reminds us that we share the world with countless other people and things. Feeling small makes us want to help others more.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Paul K. Piff, University of California, Irvine
Pia Dietze, New York University
Matthew Feinberg, University of Toronto
Daniel M. Stancato and Dacher Keltner, University of California, Berkeley

Posted: June 10, 2015
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