Awe, the overwhelming feeling of wonder and amazement in the face of something grand and powerful, has long been recognized for its ability to inspire and uplift people.
But new research suggests that awe may also play a role in shaping our social behavior, specifically our tendency to conform to social norms and majority opinions.
In a recent study titled “Awe and Social Conformity: Awe Promotes the Endorsement of Social Norms and Conformity to the Majority Opinion,” researchers investigated the impact of awe on social conformity.
Between Personal Identity and Collective Identity
Previous studies have shown that positive emotions can increase the tendency to follow social conventions and norms in order to maintain social order.
However, there has been little research on the role of positive emotions in social conformity.
The researchers hypothesized that awe, with its ability to challenge people’s current frames of reference and inspire feelings of humility and oneness with others, may not only promote prosociality but also social conformity.
Prosociality refers to the motivation to help others, while conformity indicates the tendency to follow others, which may not always result in beneficial outcomes.
Awe, they explain, may have evolutionary roots as an emotional reaction of subordinates toward figures of power or prestige, serving as a mechanism for social alignment and a nonviolent way of allocating power and submission to a greater entity.
Additionally, awe experiences often come with feelings of uncertainty, a reduced sense of control, and a lower sense of self-importance, which may lead people to seek consensus and conformity as a way to make sense of uncertain environments and ensure their survival.
Testing the Theory
To test their hypotheses, the researchers conducted two experiments, each involving about 250 – 300 participants.
In both, the participants were recruited from French-language universities in Belgium, and their average age was about 22.
Women made up approximately 80% of the participants in both studies.
In each experiment, researchers used short videos to induce feelings of awe, amusement, and neutrality.
The “awe” videos featured panoramic views of natural landscapes including waterfalls, deserts, oceans, large rivers, and high mountains.
They then tested to see how willing participants were to conform to a majority opinion in a judgment task, which involved weighing in on how much contrast a certain abstract image should have.
The results of the experiments supported the researchers’ hypothesis: participants who experienced awe were found to conform to a greater extent than those in the neutral or amusement conditions.
How much so? Approximately 52% of participants in the awe condition chose the option preferred by the majority, while only 37% in the amusement condition and 32% in the neutral condition did so.
The findings suggest that awe may serve a social alignment function, motivating people to adhere to social norms and conform to the majority opinion.
By promoting social conformity, awe may help maintain social order and provide a mechanism for people to navigate uncertain and complex social environments.
The Internet Age and the Power of Awe
The researchers acknowledge certain limitations of the study.
The experiments were conducted online, which only measured private conformity.
Further research using face-to-face paradigms of conformity is needed to fully understand the effects of awe on social conformity.
Additionally, the study mainly included female participants, which limits the generalizability of the findings.
Still, this research on awe and social conformity opens up new avenues for understanding the complex interplay between emotions and social behavior.
In a world where social influence is increasingly prevalent, especially in terms of the internet and social media, understanding the impact of emotions on social conformity becomes even more relevant.
The ability of short-form emotional videos, like the ones regularly consumed on social platforms, to significantly influence online social behavior raises important questions about the power of emotions and their role in shaping societal attitudes and behaviors.
In terms of sociology, this research highlights the importance of social norms and conformity in maintaining social order.
Awe, by promoting conformity, can play a role in shaping collective behavior and facilitating social cohesion.
Understanding the factors that influence conformity can help sociologists and policymakers design interventions that encourage positive social norms and discourage harmful behaviors.
A market for awe
And from a marketing perspective, the findings suggest that awe-inspiring experiences or stimuli can be strategically used to influence consumer behavior.
Marketers can leverage the power of awe to create memorable and impactful advertising campaigns, design awe-inspiring product experiences, or use awe-inducing content to shape consumer preferences and choices.
In conclusion, the research on awe and social conformity provides valuable insights into the role of emotions in shaping social behavior.
By demonstrating that awe promotes conformity to social norms and majority opinions, this study deepens our understanding of the complex interplay between emotions, social influence, and collective behavior.
The findings have implications for various fields and open up new avenues for future research and practical applications aimed at fostering positive social change.
Study: “Awe and social conformity: Awe promotes the endorsement of social norms and conformity to the majority opinion.”
Authors: Claire Prade and Vassilis Saroglou
Published in: Emotion
Publication date: March 9, 2023