New findings –
published in Psychological Science, a journal of the
Association for Psychological Science – suggest that awe-inspiring sights
increase our motivation to make sense of the world around us, and may underlie
a trigger of belief in the supernatural.
historical accounts of religious epiphanies and revelations seem to involve the
experience of being awe-struck by the beauty, strength or size of a divine
being, and these experiences change the way people understand and think about
the world", says psychological scientist Piercarlo Valdesolo of Claremont
to test the exact opposite prediction: It's not that the presence of the
supernatural elicits awe, it's that awe elicits the perception of the presence
of the supernatural."
How the study was done
his colleague Jesse Graham of the University of Southern California tested this
prediction by having participants watch awe-inspiring scenes from BBC's Planet
Earth documentary series or neutral video clips from a news interview.
Afterward, the participants were asked how much awe they felt while watching
the video, and whether they believed that worldly events unfold according to
some god's or other non-human entity's plan.
participants who had watched the awe-inspiring video tended to believe more in
supernatural control, and were more likely to believe in God when compared with
the news-watching group. This effect held even when awe-inspiring but
impossible scenes, such as a massive waterfall through city streets, were presented.
showed that participants who watched the awe-inspiring clips became
increasingly intolerant of uncertainty. This particular mindset – a discomfort
with uncertainty – may explain why feelings of awe produce a greater belief in
in this is that gazing upon things that we know to be formed by natural causes,
such as the jaw-dropping expanse of the Grand Canyon, pushes us to explain them
as the product of supernatural causes," Valdesolo notes.
But the researchers
point out that these data could also shed light on why certain individuals seek
to explain the world through secular and scientific means: The experience of
awe may simply motivate us to search for explanations, no matter what kinds of
explanations they are.
This might be
why, in another experiment, participants who watched the awe-inspiring video
showed greater discomfort and were more likely to believe a random string of
numbers was designed by a human hand.
Based on these
preliminary findings, Valdesolo and Graham are now looking at factors that
modulate the effect of awe on belief in the supernatural.
they are testing whether adopting submissive body postures, which make us feel
less powerful, might dispose us to experiences of awe. Such a link could
perhaps explain the presence of such postures in religious practice, such as
kneeling, bowing, and gazing up.
submissive we act, the more awe we might feel, and perhaps the stronger our
beliefs become," says Valdesolo.