Research

PKU Researcher publishes JPSP article about the effects of awe on self-conception

NOV . 16 2021
Peking University, November 16, 2021: Awe is a complex emotion that one experiences when faced with a massive yet unexplainable phenomenon. In 2003, Keltner and Haidt took on a prototype approach and suggested two elements that can be used to conceptualise awe. This laid the foundation for the scientific psychology research on awe. In their opinion, awe is mainly comprised of two characteristics – perceived vastness and the need for accommodation.

Past studies have found that the emotion of awe has a significant impact on one’s self-conception. Of which, one of the most important theories is the feeling of ‘small self’. The theory believes that the sense of awe will shift an individual’s attention from oneself to the vaster surroundings, which in turn makes the individual feel smaller and less important. As a result, one will start to show humility, yearn to establish ties with others, show pro-social behaviour and incline towards collectivism. The theory of small self helps us to understand the psychological and behavioural effects of awe. However, there are limitations to this theory. For instance, if the self becomes unimportant, what drives the individual to undergo subversive changes after feeling awe?

Researcher Jiang Tonglin and her team from the School of Psychological and Cognitive Sciences at Peking University took on a new perspective and re-examined the influence of awe on self-conception. The team carried out 14 studies, where they used different methods to stimulate a sense of awe and adopted a variety of self-measurement techniques. Laboratory and field research were then carried out on specifically chosen people from collectivism and indiviualism cultures. The results showed that the sense of awe led to individuals feeling self-transcendence and further encouraged a pursuit of their true self. The existence of the mediation effect is however, unaffected by the pride and stimulation aroused in this scene. More importantly, the team discovered that egoism caused by awe could not explain the unique impact of awe on the pursuit of true-self through self-transcendence.

On the basis of their findings, they further studied the impact of the self-effect of awe on prosociality. The results showed that the sense of awe encourages individuals to become their authentic self and exhibit prosocial behaviour. As a result, it prevents one from staying untrue to themselves despite being in the prosocial environment, such as helping others just for personal gains. In other words, awe does not promote being indifferent, not having principal or consideration of self while being prosocial. Instead, it motivates individuals to stay consistent and true to their authentic self. This discovery urges people to re-examine the relationship between awe and self-conception, thereby providing a new theoretical perspective for people to understand the positive psychological effects of awe.
 
The picture shows the Yamdrok Lake at Tibet that stimulated a sense of awe while conducting a field study

The article titled “Awe Motivates Authentic-Self Pursuit via Self-Transcendence: Implications for Prosociality” by Jiang Tonglin was published at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP). Jiang is the first and corresponding writer of the article, while Constantine Sedikides from England’s University of Southampton is the second writer. This research was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) Youth Science Fund Project.

Written by: Lee Xin Ying Rachel
Edited by: Li Wanqi
Source: PKU News (
Chinese)