On Awe, Disruption and the Perception of Climate Change

Awe and Climate Change Perception in Research

This is a brain dump of key findings in research I’ve been reviewing on Dispositional Awe, Climate Change Perception, Menace and Absorption with the aim of better understanding the psycho-physiological components of the awe experience, or lack there of, on persons and societies, and how it can be harnessed as a communication tool to increase persisting awareness to the threat of anthropogenic climate change.

In reviewing these papers, I’ve gained insight into the triggers of the awe experience: vastness (physical or metaphorical) and NFA (need for accommodation) as well as its lack of clear valence as a positive or negative emotion, how it can destabilize, alter self-concept, increase prosocial attitude and a sense of connectedness to society and nature beyond one’s self-feature.

I've also reviewed literature on climate change perception, denial and inaction and learned that abstract notions of climate change and detachment from its immediate implications (in the case of middle-class and above urban dwellers in the United States) is one of the key identified causes for lack of action and a greater psychological distance perceptions.

I’m interested in using awe as a introductory mechanism for presenting concrete, localized implications on global warming, tying together awe and menace and leveraging the altered state of mind associated with awesome experiences and the enhanced psychological proximity perceptions to increase climate change engagement and persist an intention to act in my audiences.

A particular topic I’m currently trying to understand and design for is the complex emotional and experiential mechanism that controls the self-boundary, self-transcendence and prosocial attitude. Leveraging awe to introduce localized, disturbing facts on climate change impacts can be perceived by audiences as a manipulation or cancelling out desired emotional affect.

I wonder what imagery and delivery methods could be used to instill a sense of awe in viewers?

How to relocate the disruption of natural disasters and climate change to the sheltered urban environment?

How to deliver a localized, non-abstracted image of the perils of global warming in a way that drives long term engagement and a willingness to act?


Quotes and Insights

“Awe is an emotional response to exceptionally vast stimuli and events that defy one’s accustomed frame of reference in some domain and transcend one’s current understanding.” - [Neural Basis of Dispositional Awe]

“Most researchers consider awe as a self-transcendent and collective positive emotion. Furthermore, awe has widespread effects on an individual’s self-awareness, time perception, prosocial behavior and humility.” - [Neural Basis of Dispositional Awe]

“Vastness is viewed as an encounter with anything perceived as being immense than the self in physical size, social status, scope, or complexity. NFA (need for accommodation) is considered to require a new mental schema reorganization that is needed to accommodate experiences that do not fit preexisting schemas.” - [Neural Basis of Dispositional Awe]

“Awe can significantly alter the self-concept, in ways that reflect a shift in attention toward larger entities (e.g., a community, the human species, or nature) and the diminishment of the individual self. That is to say, self-diminishment associated with awe experience results from an enhanced view of one’s larger entire group, to which the self has been assimilated.” - [Neural Basis of Dispositional Awe]

“Awe is a destabilizing emotion: It is elicited by something vast, either physically or metaphorically, that is difficult to understand.”

[Awe as a Scientific Emotion]

“Because accommodation can be difficult or unsuccessful, awe straddles the border between positive and negative—provoking a sense of wonder, but also one of powerlessness and uncertainty. Recent experimental work suggests that inducing a sense of awe can decrease tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity in the environment, driving individuals to reconcile that uncertainty by means of compensatory control, with religious notions of supernatural control offering one avenue for doing so.”

[Awe as a Scientific Emotion]

“Importantly, vastness can be either perceptual (e.g., seeing the Grand Canyon) or conceptual (e.g., contemplating eternity). Further, Keltner and Haidt describe various ‘themes’ of awe stimuli, including: threat, beauty, ability, virtue, and the supernatural.”

[The development of the Awe Experience Scale]

“Feelings of connection to other people and the environment beyond one’s self feature in experiences of awe. When awe is induced, participants frequently report a deeper sense of connection with other people and things around them.”

[The development of the Awe Experience Scale]

Research indicates that contact with natural settings, as opposed to built settings with human-made characteristics such as buildings and cityscapes, can promote physical health, restoration from mental fatigue, a sense of meaning in life, a broadened sense of connectedness to all forms of life and prosocial tendencies.

[Absorption: How Nature Experiences Promote Awe and Other Positive Emotions]

“Emotions of Menace and Enchantment (Disgust, horror, awe, and fascination) examines four pivotal human emotions, it explores what defines these emotions, how they interact, and how they impact the experience of self-boundary.”

[Emotions of menace and enchantment]

Taken together, these studies provide evidence that positive behavior-specific emotions (i.e., expecting to feel good for saving energy) may facilitate sustained action over time, as well as action more broadly, relative to negative behavior-specific emotions. 

[Feeling good, being green: The emotional drivers of proenvironmental action.]

Researchers have argued that one important reason for this indifference toward climate change may be the perception that the risk is abstract and psychologically distant, that is, its uncertain impacts will affect other people, will happen in other places or sometime in the future. Today, how to effectively communicate climate change in a way that makes the issue more real, local, urgent and relevant is a challenge.

[Visual communication of climate change]

The greater psychological distance perceptions further discouraged people's concern for climate change and intention to act, though the effect was small relative to other environmentalism factors such as self-efficacy and self-transcendent values. 

[Visual communication of climate change]

“An online survey of 219 US citizens assessed tolerance of ambiguity, political orientation, and beliefs about climate change. Results indicated that low tolerance of ambiguity predicted beliefs that: 1) climate change is not a problem; 2) is not the result of human activity, and; 3) cannot be corrected through individual behavior. Analyses also supported that these relationships were mediated by conservative political orientation.”

[Personality, politics, and denial: Tolerance of ambiguity, political orientation and disbelief in climate change]

Reading list:

[Neural Basis of Dispositional Awe]

[Awe as a Scientific Emotion]

[Awe: “More Than a Feeling”]

[The development of the Awe Experience Scale]

[Inspiring awe in consumers]

[Absorption: How Nature Experiences Promote Awe and Other Positive Emotions]

[Emotions of menace and enchantment]

[Feeling good, being green: The emotional drivers of proenvironmental action.]

[Visual communication of climate change]