November 25, 2013
Sense Of Awe Inspires Belief In The Supernatural
A study recently published by the journal Psychological Science brings new meaning to the term “God’s country,” as a pair of researchers reported that experiencing awe-inspiring moments, like seeing the Grand Canyon or Aurora Borealis, increases the odds of a person believing in a higher power or the supernatural.
"Many 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,” said study author Piercarlo Valdesolo, a social psychologist at Claremont McKenna College in California."We wanted 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,” he added.
In particular, the study researchers said they were interested in the idea of agency detection, or the tendency to see events as the result of intentional and purpose-driven agents, be they natural or otherworldly.
In the study, Valdesolo and co-author Jesse Graham of the University of Southern California had participants view either awe-inspiring scenes from the Planet Earth documentary series or ‘neutral’ scenes from a news interview. After watching the video, study volunteers were asked to rank their level of awe and whether they thought worldly events happen according to some kind of master plan.
The researchers found that volunteers who viewed the awe-inspiring video were more likely to believe in a supernatural plan and in God compared to the neutral group. The same effect was seen even when participants were shown awe-inspiring special effects videos, such as a massive waterfall pouring through city streets.
In a separate experiment for the same study, participants who were shown awe-inspiring clips became more intolerant of uncertainty. This higher level of certainty, and narrow-mindedness, could explain why sensations of awe translate to a greater belief in the supernatural, the study team said.
"The irony 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 noted.
The study authors said that their results could explain why certain people seek to explain the world around them via scientific means – theorizing that awe could motivate us to search for explanations, whether they are secular or spiritual in nature.
The team came to this conclusion after another study experiment showed that participants who viewed awe-inspiring video were more likely to say a random string of numbers was actually made by human design.
The study team said they are now looking into factors that change the effect of awe on belief in the supernatural. Citing religious practices such as kneeling and bowing, the team said they are looking at how the adoption of submissive body postures, which make us feel less powerful, affect experiences of awe.
"The more submissive we act, the more awe we might feel, and perhaps the stronger our beliefs become," Valdesolo said.