Feelings of awe may motivate us to become our “authentic” selves

By Emma Young

Awe has to be one of the hottest emotions in psychological research. Here at the Digest, we’ve covered all kinds of recent work on everything from the benefits of awe walks to the mixed emotion of threat-awe. Now a new paper argues that awe “awakens self-transcendence”, helping people to get closer to their true, “authentic” self.

Awe is often defined as the feeling you get when you’re in the presence of something vast that challenges your view of the world, and your place in it. The “authentic self” is who you truly are — taking into account your goals, aspirations and values.

Tonglin Jiang at Peking University and Constantine Sedikides report no fewer than 14 studies on a total of more than 4,400 people in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes. In early studies, they found that a person’s level of predisposition to feeling awe (to “feeling wonder” almost every day, for example) was linked to how much they wanted to get closer to their authentic self. This was assessed using a scale that measured “authentic-self pursuit”.

In another study, the pair tried encouraging feelings of awe in some of their participants, by using images of the Northern Lights, for example, as well as by getting them to remember times in their lives when they perceived vastness and adjusted their worldview as a result. They found that people in this group had higher scores on the authentic-self pursuit scale than a control group who had seen scenes of daily life. They interpret this as suggesting that the experience of awe encourages a desire to get closer to the authentic self.

Jiang and Sedikides then explored potential links with self-transcendence — feeling an expansion or dissolution of the hard boundary of the self, and a sense of unity with the wider world; this can have spiritual connotations, though it does not have to. In studies on Chinese and also American participants, the pair found that people with higher dispositional awe also had greater self-transcendence scores — and this helped to explain why these people showed a stronger pursuit of the authentic self. (This was especially true for the Chinese participants, they note.)

In their final set of studies, the researchers found that, as before, feelings of awe were linked to higher authentic-self pursuit scores, but also that these scores were in turn linked to stronger pro-social feelings. These were assessed using a scale that asked participants about feelings of wanting to take care of people in need, for example.

Earlier research has linked feeling awe to all kinds of benefits, both for the individual person, and society — such as greater wellbeing and reduced daily stress, as well as increased compassion, gratitude and love. Based on their new findings, “self-transcendence or self-transcendence followed by authentic-self pursuit may be the underlying mechanisms,” Jiang and Sedikides write.

They also reference recent work finding that not all types of awe are positive, however. It’s possible that threat-awe works differently — and wouldn’t encourage self-transcendence and more prosocial feelings.

A lot of this new work is suggestive, rather than conclusive, it has to be said. But if positive types of awe do motivate people to be more in touch with who they “are” — with all the benefits that brings — this would fit with an endeavour that had become a cliché even by the time I was a student. People who take gap years or sabbaticals to “find themselves” are likely to find themselves the butt of some ribbing… but if that travel gives them awe-inspiring experiences, then this work suggests that it really could bring them closer to their true selves.

Awe Motivates Authentic-Self Pursuit via Self-Transcendence: Implications for Prosociality

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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