“Awe is the best of man.” (Goethe)
As Goethe suggests in the above quotation, there long has been speculation that the emotion of awe may be one of the most meaningful kinds of human experience. Only in the past decade or so, however, have psychological scientists seriously attempted to understand this emotion.
Part of this emerging literature are attempts to measure the proneness to experience awe. The assumption in this research appears to be that the tendency to be awestruck in everyday life varies across individuals, more than likely on a bell-shaped curve. That is, whereas some individuals may not experience awe all that often, others may experience awe fairly regularly.
The first and most commonly used measure of awe-proneness was developed by Shiota, Keltner, and John (2006) as a part of a broader measure of the tendency to experience seven distinct positive emotions (i.e., amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, enthusiasm, love, and pride). It consists of six items answered on a 7-point scale, ranging from (1) strongly disagree to (7) strongly agree. The six items follow.
- I often feel awe.
- I see beauty all around me.
- I feel wonder almost every day.
- I often look for patterns in the objects around me.
- I have many opportunities to see the beauty of nature.
- I seek out experiences that challenge my understandingof the world.
In a nationally representative sample of 1,519 participants, the tendency to experience awe was less likely than the tendency to experience the other six positive emotions, with participants scoring a little higher than the mid-point, on average (mean = 4.62; Piff, Dietze, Feinberg, Stancato, & Keltner, 2015, Study 1).
Research has revealed that awe-proneness, as measured by this scale, predicts extraversion and openness to experience, decreased need for cognitive closure and increased oceanic descriptions of self, lower levels of a protein thought to contribute to health difficulties, and generosity (Piff et al., 2015, Study 1; Shiota et al., 2006; Shiota, Keltner, & Mossman, 2007, Study 3; Stellar, John-Henderson, Anderson, Gordon, McNeil, & Keltner, 2015).
Historically, the experience of awe most often has been discussed in the context of religion. Although it is clear that awe is experienced by religious and non-religious alike, and is evoked by a variety of stimuli, the first measure neglects consideration of religious awe. In light of this, Krause and Hayward (2015) developed a measure of the tendency to experience an “awe of God.”
To develop this measure, researchers interviewed participants about how they think about “awe of God.” Major themes were extracted and items later were refined for clarity. Six items were identified; these are rated on a 4-point scale, ranging from (1) strongly disagree to (4) strongly agree. These items follow.
- The beauty of the world that God has made leaves me breathless.
- It is mind-boggling to think that I am just a small part of the invite universe that God has made.
- I am astonished by how little I understand about the universe and all that is in it.
- The unlimited power of God fills me with amazement.
- The ageless and timeless nature of God fills me with awe.
- I am filled with wonder when I think about the limitless wisdom of God.
Krause and Kayward (2015) found that responses on this measure correlated with church attendance, practical wisdom, and connectedness with others.
It is potentially enlightening to reflect on how often we might tend to experience an emotion as powerful as awe. As research progresses in understanding awe, the potential implications of individual differences in awe proneness should become clearer.