Feeling awe can sometimes be awful

Tornadic supercell in the American plainsBy Alex Fradera

Most research into the emotion of awe – a response to something vast or overwhelming – has focused on its positive upsides, classing it alongside delight or pleasure. But the University of California’s Greater Good research programme recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology the first full investigation of what they call “threatening awe” defined as a strong feeling of wonder and fear.

Amie Gordon and her team looked at times where people felt awe in response to overwhelming stimuli like huge storms or the vastness of the universe, or were exposed for the first time to accounts of historical horrors such as the Vietnam war. Skin conductance and heart rate measures showed that feeling the threatening version of awe activated the sympathetic autonomic nervous system, which is associated with negative emotional states. The data also suggested that feeling threatening awe rather than the positive kind may be influenced by thoughts which make us actively feel powerless – the prospect of being trapped on the pitiless ocean – rather than simply small, such as reflecting on the vastness of the cosmos.

Whereas previous work has shown awe to be associated with wellbeing and life satisfaction, one of the new experiments involving 603 participants found that an ominous video with swirling tornadoes, associated with threat-based awe, produced lower wellbeing compared to a positive awe-filled video and even a neutral one. Gordon’s team pointed out that the word awe produces two offspring with very different connotations: awesome and awful. Gazing into the face of God, or the vastness of the cosmos, isn’t a sunshine and kittens experience: awe exists in the “upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear”.

The dark side of the sublime: Distinguishing a threat-based variant of awe

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

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