Concert halls, movie theaters, and museums serve as the crossroads of artistic expression.
Despite their unique identities, they all share a profound capacity to evoke awe.
Awe, as it turns out, is more than just a fleeting sensation.
Research has linked it to an increased focus on others’ needs in adults, and now, new findings in the journal Psychological Science suggest that it can also foster generosity in children.
The Art of Awe
“Awe, an aesthetic and moral emotion, helps societies flourish by making children more generous,” say Eftychia Stamkou and colleagues Eddie Brummelman, Rohan Dunham, Milica Nikolic (University of Amsterdam), and Dacher Keltner (University of California, Berkeley).
“Our research,” they continue, “is the first to demonstrate that awe-eliciting art can spark prosociality in children, even encouraging them to donate tangible resources, and this effect concurs with physiological processes associated with social engagement.”
Awe descends upon us when we are confronted with something vast, either conceptually or physically, that makes us feel small and puts our sense of self into a larger social context, Stamkou said.
While previous research has shown that children develop a sense of self – an essential component of awe – by age 5, it was unclear how this might relate to their capacity for experiencing awe.
Empathy on the Silver Screen
In their new paper, which was published on February 6, 2023, Stamkou and her team discovered that viewing awe-inspiring film scenes can encourage children as young as 8 to prioritize others’ well-being.
In the first of two studies, 159 online participants aged 8 to 13 viewed one of three film clips previously shown to elicit awe, joy, or neutrality.
After viewing, participants reported their feelings and completed two tasks.
The first task involved counting items donated to a university food drive for local refugees, and the second offered participants the choice to donate their reward—a museum ticket—to a refugee family or keep it for themselves.
Children who watched the awe-inspiring video counted 50% more items for the food drive and were 2 to 3 times more likely to donate their museum tickets than children in the other conditions.
“Children led to feel awe were more likely to forgo self-gain to help refugees,” the researchers noted.
The Physiology of Awe
In a second study, the researchers measured the respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) of 384 children while watching mood-inducing videos.
Although these children did not count more items for the food drive, they were significantly more likely to donate their reward to a food drive for refugee children.
RSA increased in response to the awe-inspiring video and decreased in response to the joyful and neutral videos.
These results align with previous research on adults, in which awe experiences increased activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), supporting emotion regulation and social engagement.
“These physical benefits of awe have downstream consequences on individuals’ social relationships,” the researchers observed.
Awe’s Potential in Child Development
These findings not only demonstrate that children as young as 8 can experience awe, but also that creating awe-inspiring environments may nurture prosocial behavior.
Stamkou plans to investigate how physiological measures like RSA can be used to measure awe in even younger children.
For instance, a 1- or 2-year-old toddler may not grasp the concept of awe, but their responses to singing and music could reveal deeper emotional connections than previously imagined, suggests Stamkou.
Building Awe-Inspiring Spaces for Children
The potential benefits of awe in fostering prosocial behavior emphasize the importance of designing environments that inspire this powerful emotion.
Educational institutions, cultural centers, and public spaces could incorporate awe-inspiring elements, such as art installations, architecture, and natural landscapes, to stimulate empathy and generosity in children from an early age.
Further Research and Implications
These groundbreaking studies have opened the door to new inquiries into how awe and its physiological correlates can influence child development.
By exploring the relationship between awe, RSA, and social behavior in younger children, researchers can deepen our understanding of how to cultivate empathy and prosocial behavior from the earliest stages of life.
The power of awe in fostering a sense of community and generosity across age groups highlights the significance of creating spaces where art and nature converge.
Ultimately, awe-inspiring environments may not only contribute to the well-being of individuals, but also to the flourishing of societies as a whole.
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