Awe and the Supernatural

Majestic mountains, vibrant vistas, stunning scenery – and, perhaps, the transformation of a blob of molten glass into a rearing horse – these are sights that can truly be awe-inspiring, generating those feelings of reverence and wonder. They make time seem to slow down. But do they also make it seem more likely that there must be some creator or supernatural being behind it all?

Awe-inspiring mountains of Lucerne, Switzerland. Photo by K. Blackwell, 2010.

Awe-inspiring mountains of Lucerne, Switzerland. Photo by K. Blackwell, 2010.

The theory is called “compensatory control”: when awe is thrust upon us unexpectedly, it reminds us of all that you do not fully comprehend or control, which is a very uncomfortable feeling, and we reduce our discomfort by coming up with an explanation that puts someone in control. Specifically, we declare that there is “agency” at work, because someone did this.

To test whether a feeling of awe would make people less tolerant of uncertainty and therefore believe that there is some unseen hand at work, researchers had volunteers watch a quick 5-minute movie and then rate their agreement with a few key statements such as “The events that occur in this world unfold according to God’s or some other nonhuman entity’s plan”. People who watched 5 minutes of BBC’s Earth (chosen to include impressive and awe-inspiring scenes) were more likely to agree with those statements and to report a belief in god than those who watched an equally long televised interview. The shift in belief was subtle: on a 10 point scale where 1 is “tremendously doubtful” and 10 is “extremely likely”, those who watched the awe-inspiring video rated their belief as only 1 point more certain (6.2 vs. 5.1). However, statistically awe explained virtually all of the difference in belief, with nothing left over to be explained by other emotions.

Of course, this just shows us that awe seems to inspire a certain belief in the supernatural, not that it has anything to do with how out-of-control awe makes us feel or how our discomfort can be reduced by attributing everything to a higher power. Thus, a second study was done, now adding the ambiguity subscale of a Need for Closure questionnaire, asking people to rate how much they agreed that  “I feel uncomfortable when I don’t understand the reason why an event occurred in my life”, this time on a 6-point scale, with 6 being “totally agree”. Again, the group that watched Earth reported about a point more certainty that there is some supernatural being (6.3 vs. 5.2, still on the 10-point scale), and self-reported feelings of awe at the time explained this heightened belief.

And, critically, the group that watched the awe-inspiring documentary were more intolerant of uncertainty, about half a point (4.4 vs. 4.0) on that 6-point scale. With careful statistical analysis, the authors show that this intolerance for uncertainty explains about half of why awe inspires a belief in the supernatural – although it was note quite statistically significant (p = .054, when usually we want < .05) and only explained about half

Two additional studies replaced self-reported belief in the supernatural with a task designed to see if people saw intelligence action behind random events – that is, whether people were likely to decree that a series of random numbers had been generated by a person rather than a computer, again on a scale of 10 (with 1 being definitely random, and 10 being definitely human). Those who watched in the awe-inspiring video were more likely to believe the numbers were generated by people (5.7 instead of 5.1), and an increased intolerance for ambiguity was behind some – but not all – of that tendency to see intelligent action where none existed.

So, we have some evidence for compensatory control. When in a state of awe we don’t like not understanding the reason why, which makes us look for reasons even when there are none, and this can enhance our belief in God or any supernatural being acting behind the scenes, because that way either we can understand what’s going on (“God did it”), or at least if we don’t understand it someone else does (the ineffable plan).

Unfortunately, as a Psychological Science report with 5 experiments squeezed in, there is very little room given to discussion. The authors acknowledge that the link between awe and belief is only “partially mediated” by compensatory control, but offer very little about what the non-mediated portion – that is, the part of change in belief that cannot be explained by discomfort with not being in certain of what’s going on – really is. There is a footnote (only a footnote!) suggesting that it could be either that the way they measured intolerance of ambiguity is limited and couldn’t capture a complete sense of that emotion, or that there is some other link between awe and belief that wasn’t thought about and measured. But what could that missing link be? A two-paragraph discussion simply can’t do justice to a topic this rich, which makes the entire article feel somewhat unsatisfying, and not awe-inspiring at all.
Valdesolo, P., & Graham, J. (2014). Awe, uncertainty, and agency detection. Psychological Science, 25 (1), 170-178. PMID: 24247728


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