The Resurgence of Awe in Psychology:
Promise, Hope, and Perils1
[Note: This article is in press with The Humanistic Psychologist,
copyright, 2016 by the American Psychological Association (APA).
This article may not exactly replicate the authoritative document to be
published in the APA journal. It is not the copy of record]
Kirk Schneider, PhD is the recent past president of the Society for
Humanistic Psychology (Division 32 of the American Psychological
Association, 2015-2016); adjunct faculty at Saybrook University and
Teachers College, Columbia University; and president-elect of the
Existential-Humanistic Institute (ehinstitute.org). Dr. Schneider’s
recent publications include The Polarized Mind, Existential-
Humanistic Therapy, and Awakening to Awe.
The sense of awe, also defined as a perception of vastness that
cannot be assimilated but can be accommodated; or as the
experience of humility and wonder--adventure--toward living, has
become a “hot” topic in psychology. This article considers the basis
for this trend, some promising avenues of research, and several
challenges to the mainstream--quantitative--perspective on awe. It is
concluded that while mainstream perspectives on awe appear to
have beneficial effects on an impressive array of human behaviors,
the relative neglect of historically rooted, in depth, qualitative
approaches to awe pose notable perils. Among these perils are the
comparative reductionism of the findings on awe to overt and
measurable reactions; the neglect of longer term, life-changing
experiences of awe, and the neglect of the broader social implications
of awe-based transformation.
Keywords: awe, awe-based, positive psychology, happiness,
humanistic, existential, social-political, methodology
William James (1902/1936) extolled it in his Varieties of
Religious Experience; Rudolf Otto (1923/1958) in his Idea of the
Holy; and Abraham Maslow (1966), Rollo May (1991), and Ernest
Becker (1967) celebrated it in their chief psychospiritual treatises. But
how has the concept they celebrated--the sense of awe--fared in
Not so well I would contend--and in fact dismally. In the last
three decades, the sense of awe as a focus of study has virtually
disappeared (Haidt, 2006). While mainstream psychology had
included it as a kind of “add on,” particularly in its investigation of
religion (e.g., Wulff, 1997), the sensibility had, for all intents and
purposes, zero role in the major subdisciplines of psychology--from
methodology to personality and from psychotherapy to healthcare--
until recently, that is.
At present, the sense of awe is one of the hottest topics in
contemporary psychology (Bonner & Friedman, 2011; Gregoire,
2014). Beginning with the germinal research of Keltner & Haidt’s
(2003) article called “Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and
aesthetic emotion,” Haidt’s (2006) book on Happiness, Piff &
Keltner’s (2015, May 22) New York Times piece on awe, and to a
lesser extent my own Rediscovery of Awe (2004) and Awakening to
Awe (2009), the sensibility of awe is the subject of a surfeit of studies
and articles. These studies range from the mainstream professional
literature (e.g., Bonner & Friedman, 2011; Rudd, Vohs, & Aaker,
2012) to social media (e.g., The Huffington Post [Gregoire, 2014,
September], to the mainstream press (e.g., Parade Magazine [Scott,
2016, October 9] and The New York Times [Piff & Keltner, 2015, May
22]). The sense of awe has also recently (June, 2016) become the
focus of a major symposium sponsored by the University of
California, Berkeley entitled the “Art and Science of Awe.” This
conference, which was headlined by Keltner and other mainstream
spokespersons for the study of awe, was attended by literally
hundreds of enthusiastic supporters--I know because I was there.
But what is this phenomenon that seems to have taken
our profession--and much of the world--by storm? First it is a concept
that is strongly attuned to our times. These are times in which the
fastest growing “religious” constituency--the so-called “Nones,” or
noncommitted religious seekers--are loath to commit to any one
religious dogma but seek out a multiplicity of religious and spiritual
“truths” (Weiner, 2011, December 11). To the extent that the sense of
awe cross-cuts all of the major world religions without identifying with
any single one, it resonates powerfully with that pursuit. Moreover,
the sense of awe is correlated with many behavioral states that excite
the new spiritual seekers. These states include increased altruism,
patience, gratitude, creativity, and even, relative to other “positive”
states such as “happiness” an increased preference for substantive
(as distinct from frivolous) travel destinations (Piff & Keltner, 2015,
May 22; Rudd, Vohs, & Aaker, 2012; Van Capellen & Saroglou,
2012)! The sense of awe, even more than happiness, has also
correlated with the lowering of disease-promoting inflammation, an
increased frequency of “piloerections,” that is goose bumps, and a
general sense of life-satisfaction (Rudd, Vohs, & Aaker, 2012; Stellar
et al., 2015).
Mainstream Research on Awe
As previously indicated, the resurgence of conventional
research on awe is due largely to Keltner & Haidt’s (2003) article.
This piece inspired dozens of spin-off studies examining the
correlations between awe and prosocial behaviors. These studies
have been especially appealing in the field of positive psychology
where quantitative-experimental demonstrations of the power of awe
are noteworthy (Bonner & Friedman,2011; Sundararajan, 2002).
The problem with these aforementioned studies from an
existential-humanistic standpoint, however is three-fold: 1) they are
based on a narrow and objectivizing methodology; 2) this
methodology may yield commensurately narrow and transient results;
and 3) some of the results may ironically contribute to rather than
form a hedge against our “quick fix,” awe-depleted culture.
A large proportion of awe studies are based on overt and
measurable (that is, quantitative-experimental) data (Bonner &
Friedman, 2011; Sundararajan, 2002). While this approach is not
necessarily problematic in itself, it does raise questions about the
generalizability of its findings for the deeper, experiential aspects of
awe that resist articulation by quantitative assessment (Bonner &
Friedman, 2011). Consider, for example, the conventional definition
of awe, originally formulated by Keltner and Haidt (2003). This
definition in effect states that awe is a perception of vastness that
cannot be assimilated but can be accommodated. The problem with
this definition however is not that it’s in error, but that it only goes so
far. The classic definition of awe through history conveys that not
only can awe not be assimilated, that is, integrated within one’s own
cognitive schemas, but that, ultimately, it also cannot be
accommodated, that is, integrated within external schemas, such as
religions (Otto, 1923/1958). This is because, fundamentally, awe is
based on the mystery of existence, and mystery, by definition, cannot
be assimilated or accommodated; it is beyond schematization. This
state of affairs is also why historically, there is consistently an
element of anxiety in the awe-based state; it is not merely the thrill of
the vast and unknown but also the dread (Webster’s New Collegiate
Dictionary, 1988). Or as I have stated it in my qualitative studies of
awe, it is perceived as a co-mingling of “thrill and anxiety,” “humility
and wonder of living” (Schneider, 2004, 2009). To put it succinctly,
the challenge of awe is precisely that it cannot be assimilated or
accommodated; it must be lived with, often for long periods of time,
without the hope of being solved or comfortably categorized.
Another and related difficulty with the conventional view is that
because the standardized definition of awe is confined to an overt
and measurable calculus (that of “accommodation”), the methodology
used to investigate the definition is also confined to a calculus.
Hence to test people’s accommodation to vastness, they are “primed”
by comparatively short and accommodative scenes, such as videos
of waterfalls, astronauts, landscapes and other brief exposures to
nature (Mikulak, 2015, April). But to what extent are these glimpses
reflective of the awe people experience in real life, and how enduring
are their results? The conventional findings also show that, based on
paper and pencil tests, physiological instruments, and other
objectivized measures, many people perceive positive changes in
their lives. But to what extent are these instruments measuring the
kind of awe that has been articulated throughout the ages--great
works of art, meaningful innovations, or lifetimes of struggle, inquiry,
and engagement? These latter exemplars of awe may only be
captured very partially by the conventional scales--or perhaps not at
all! On the other hand if there was ever a time where mixed methods
were called for this is it. Such quantitative and qualitative methods
could considerably enrich our understanding of the long-term and
multifaceted implications of awe-inspired lives.2
For example, in my own, phenomenologically-based
investigations, I found that awe is associated with an ongoing
appreciation for life in all its vicissitudes, from the melancholic to the
ecstatic, and from the deeply troubling and even mortifying to the
poignant and profound. This “whole enchilada” approach to life
differentiated into six basic themes or what I call “lenses” through
which participants in my 2009 study cultivated a sense of awe:
These entailed 1) an acute awareness of the passing nature of time,
2) the attunement to wonder and surprise, 3) the realization of a
cosmic context to everyday experiences, 4) the perception of the
intricacy and subtleties of life, 5) the experience of being deeply,
emotionally moved, and 6) the appreciation for solitude. I also found
that the sense of awe has rich potential to reform the very building
blocks of modern industrialized society, from its implications for the
transformation of our parenting to our educational system to our work
setting to our religious and spiritual settings and even to our
legislative and deliberative settings in local communities (see
Schneider, 2009, 2013, 2016). While granting that these are
ambitious elaborations of comparatively limited qualitative data, they
are nevertheless vital in my view if we are to address a phenomenon
as rich and far-ranging as awe.
Two Kinds of Awe
What I’m beginning to sense then is that there appear to be two
basic contemporary forms of awe: that which I call (following a
Japanese adage) the “quick boil” form, and that which I term the
“slow simmer form.” The quick boil form, represented notably by
mainstream quantitative-experimental research, and the slow simmer
form, reflected palpably by more literary, qualitative forms of inquiry,
seem to echo a larger, virtually archetypal clash at the heart of our
Western industrialized culture. On the one hand, we have the
ostensibly efficient and glamorous findings of mainstream research.
These findings are relatively unambiguous (as reflected for example,
by the increase of prosocial preferences or physiological resilience in
response to brief awe-eliciting stimuli). The findings are also
comparatively marketable and fit comfortably with seductive
consumerist desires. For example, who would not want brisk ways to
make themselves feel “awesome;” and the more that “awesomeness”
(like “happiness”) can be commodified, or even “prescribed” as one
presenter put it at the aforementioned Art and Science of Awe
conference, so much the better. Now to be fair, I know that many of
the mainstream researchers of awe do not pursue their investigations
on the basis of financial rewards, but my larger point is that because
of the calculating and standardizing methodological paradigm out of
which they practice, some mainstream investigators contribute
unwittingly to this mercantile, means/ends mentality. It will not be
long in my view before a brain scientist identifies a neural correlate
for awe--and this will be activated and deactivated at will. But the
question persists: will such a discovery reflect the subtle and manifold
experiences of awe, and especially those of the slow simmer variety?
Personally, I doubt it. The slow simmer variety of awe entails hard-
won, ambiguously tinged life experiences, experiences that are
cultivated through persistent engagements, complicated
relationships, and unsettling perceptions (see Schneider, 2009;
Sundararajan, 2002)--not merely behaviors and brain functions.
Here for example is an excerpt from an interviewee in
Awakening to Awe that would be hard-pressed to operationalize:
Awe is, in one special sense, the excitement of
participation. Translated into process, awe befriends
depth psychotherapy—not by promising to remove all pain,
rather by addressing (with reverence) the pained person;
not by eradicating his conflict. Instead by paying attention
to the role of friction and combat as the exile’s resolve to
cross the desert; not by encouraging the positive, more
by paying attention to who one is; finally, not by
dismissing sin, but more important, by seeking fellowship
within the tragedy of alienation and estrangement. (Cited
in Schneider, 2009, p. 117).
To sum, and as the excerpt above illustrates, there is great
need for the mixed method study of awe. Prevailing psychological
research is dominated by quantitative-experimental methods that
partially but not optimally in my view, capture the richness of the
compelling human experience of awe. In my and others’ studies awe
is not merely a “means-ends” phenomenon, a “place to get to” that
can be formulated and “prescribed,” but an organic experience that
has transformed the lives of many profound inquirers and sufferers of
the human predicament (I think not only of scholars and artists here
but also those in my study, Awakening to Awe, who were former
gang leaders and drug addicts; abused children and infirmed adults).
Qualitative research has also shown awe to be a byproduct of a life
deeply lived, and not necessarily a specific scene or event. This issue
is illuminated most acutely by the youthful videos of Jason Silva,
another featured presenter at the Art and Science of Awe conference.
His virtually manic dashes through milestones of life-experience--the
formation of an embryo, the immensities of space, the creations of
Mozart--are mind-blowing; but they are also mind-numbing because
we know intuitively that more, much more, is embodied by such
scenarios than can be captured in a three-minute short (see, for
example, his video titled “Radical Openness” at
Finally, prevailing research also does not capture the larger
social implications of an awe-based reformation. I have touched upon
some of the sectors of that reformation, but provide fuller details in
my books (Schneider, 2004, 2009, 2013, 2016), along with those by
many kindred scholars, such as James (1902/1936), Maslow (1966),
May (1991), Becker (1967), Marcel (1967), Mendelowitz (2008), and
Tillich (1952). It is high time for psychology to spread its wings and go
farther in its reply to perceptual psychologist J.J. Gibson (1988) who
wrote: “Psychology or at least American psychology is a second rate
discipline. The main reason is that it does not stand in awe of its
subject matter” (p. 1).
To be sure, psychology is once again standing in awe of its
subject matter; but how and with what degree of depth? I argue that
the manner and substance with which psychology is now standing in
awe is wanting. It is hopeful, but also potentially perilous in its
seduction by reductionist-consumerist forces. The answer to this
dilemma will not be simple but is imperative if we are to foster a more
gratifying path. The embrace of mixed methods--the slow simmer of
depth--will help light the way.
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