Awe—the emotion we feel in the presence of something vast or powerful that challenges our understanding—has the remarkable ability to help us transcend ourselves. It makes us feel smaller and more one with others and the world. It also makes us kinder and more generous toward others.
Now, a new study finds another social effect of awe that may surprise you: It increases conformity.
For their experiment, researchers Claire Prade of Aix-Marseille University in France and Vassilis Saroglou of the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium randomly assigned 308 participants to remember either a time when they were “in the presence of a stunning natural landscape” (designed to evoke awe), “a particular event during which [they] laughed with friends” (designed to evoke amusement), or the last time they went grocery shopping (neutral). People were asked to try to immerse themselves in the memory and then to write about it. They then rated how much they felt different emotions, including those associated with awe (awe, fascination, and curiosity).
Next, participants read a series of brief descriptions of people that pointed to 10 core values, including achievement (“It’s important to her to show her abilities. She wants people to admire what she does”), hedonism (“He seeks every chance he can to have fun. It is important to him to do things that give him pleasure”), and conformity (“It is important to her always to behave properly. She wants to avoid doing anything people would say is wrong”). Participants rated how much they thought they were like each person.
Ultimately, participants who recalled an awe memory identified more with the people who valued conformity compared to those who recalled amusing and neutral memories. This effect could be entirely explained by how much awe they felt after their reminiscence, suggesting that experiencing awe does increase how much we value conformity.
This is “the first empirical evidence that awe promotes social conformity,” write the researchers. “Awe was found to drive individuals to value the respect of social norms.”
The researchers’ second experiment was designed to test whether awe encourages us to conform to a majority opinion, in addition to just valuing conformity. In this experiment, 289 participants were randomly assigned to view either an awe-evoking, amusement-evoking, or neutral three-minute video and then to rate how much they felt specific emotions.
People then viewed two displays of blue geometric shapes that differed only in how much the shapes contrasted with the background. A test with other participants had found that most people prefer the configuration with more contrast—regardless of what video they watch beforehand—but participants in this experiment were told the opposite (that most people prefer the configuration with less contrast). People then selected which configuration they preferred.
While only 37% of the people who watched the amusing video and 32% who watched the neutral video went along with the fake majority opinion, 52% of people who watched the awe-evoking video did. This means that a three-minute video was enough to nudge people to go along with the crowd—which could be very relevant to the large numbers of people who watch videos on social media, the researchers point out.
Together, these results suggest that awe inspires us not only to want to help others but also to agree with them and to adhere to social norms. This outcome is particularly interesting in light of other studies that have found that awe also increases humility and reduces both personal ideological convictions and perceptions of ideological polarization. Awe appears to act as a lever that decenters our own opinions, encouraging us to go along to get along, so to speak, and to focus on our shared humanity.
Unpacking the effects of awe
There are obvious downsides to social conformity. When weaponized, conformity can lead to discrimination and atrocities. By promoting conformity, awe may be one way that leaders—including dangerous ones—have garnered more power throughout history (and prehistory).
“From an evolutionary perspective, awe may have resulted as the emotional reaction of a subordinate toward a figure disposing power or prestige,” write the researchers, noting that an increased attention to imitating and complying with a leader may once have been vital for survival. While this tendency may have helped our ancestors live, we can all think of times when giving a charismatic leader more power has had dire consequences.
That said, social norms govern many of our actions, often guiding us to behave in ways that don’t alienate or harm other people. They can also help us deal with uncertainty, and that may actually be another reason why we evolved to experience awe in the first place.
“Conforming to social norms or to others’ choices provides guidance for helping individuals to deal with uncertain situations because it offers order and meaning,” write the researchers. “Awe may thus be an adaptive emotional response that allows recognition of the limits of one’s knowledge and a greater endorsement of others’ views and behaviors.”
Since this is only the first study to explore the connection between awe and social conformity, there are still many things we don’t know. For example, it could be interesting to see how awe-inspiring content influences online behavior in social networks. Would watching a Planet Earth clip on social media make you more likely to endorse the majority opinion or candidate on a poll? Would we be more likely to use good netiquette when awed? Would we be more or less likely to call out someone exhibiting problematic behavior?
At the same time, previous work found that awe increases critical thinking, which can require going against the majority opinion, so future research may be able to reconcile these findings. The researchers note some important limitations of their work, such as the fact that most of the participants were women, the experiments were conducted online and in private, and only positive experiences in nature were used to evoke awe.
In the end, awe may not be the only positive emotion that drives adherence to social norms. This study suggests that amusement does not increase conformity, while a previous study found that gratitude—but not joy—does. According to Prade and Saroglou, this may suggest that other-centered emotions—like awe and gratitude—are more likely to encourage conformity because feeling close to others motivates us to act out of concern for the group. So the next time you’re in a group that’s having trouble reaching consensus, a small dose of awe might help.