Guest Post: Awe and Pro-Environmental Behavior

This was written my friend and fellow science communicator Conor Feehly, about his research on the role of awe in environmentalism. It's our first guest post! Enjoy.


  Image from the  BBC

Image from the BBC

You’ve probably watched a film or show in which our current environmental and ecological crisis has been communicated to you – perhaps something like Planet Earth or An Inconvenient Truth. These types of media have increasingly addressed environmental issues, making us more aware of the ever-growing human footprint on the planet. Shows and documentaries like these are usually laden with awe-evoking imagery, such as sweeping shots of vast natural habitats, often from a perspective that we have never seen before. Some of these images can also be grim reminders of the damage that people have inflicted on nature: country-sized rubbish patches in the Pacific, climate-based natural disasters, or the disappearance of countless species. It seems clear that the producers of these films and series are trying to bring to our conscious attention these issues, and, if possible, change our behavior. But these images, where the environmental catastrophe is made abundantly clear to us, might not be the best way to motivate us to address these issues. Clearly, awe-evoking imagery affects our emotional state. But is the emotional state that they create an effective one for motivating us to change our behavior?

This beautiful shot of a gray-headed albatross evokes positive awe. Is this photo more likely than the one below to generate support for conservation efforts to protect island birds and their habitats? Image by Glenn Bartley

This juvenile gray-headed albatross has been partially eaten by mice. This image evokes feelings of negative awe - is it more likely than the image above to generate support for conservation efforts? Image by Thomas P. Peschak

People say that these ‘negative’ awe images, where our devastating environmental impact is laid bare to us, make us feel powerless to solve the problems we face. And this makes sense – how can I as an individual have any real impact on such large and insurmountable problems like global warming or biodiversity loss? This question is common – especially when we might have to make inconvenient changes to our lives, like using public transport or eating less meat, to tackle something intangible and complex where we won’t even see the benefit of our sacrifice. Perhaps using ‘positive’ awe imagery is a better way to motivate people into behaviorally addressing these issues. We might be more inclined to make these sacrifices to protect the environment that already exists, instead of overwhelming ourselves with the burden of the mess we created. However, recent research on the effects of awe on our behavior, including my own, suggests that this conundrum is a little more complex than what we once might have thought.

First, we have to understand how being in a state of awe affects our behavior. Several studies on awe link it with prosociality. In other words, when people are under the influence of awe, they are more generous and empathetic towards their peers. Psychologists believe that this is largely a result of awe’s effect on the self-concept, or how individuals define their sense of self identity. This may be as an individual or it may be part of a larger group or community. People tend to describe themselves as part of a collective, e.g. a religion or a nationality, or something even bigger like a human from Earth. When we are in awe we have this feeling that we are small and unimportant, but connected to something bigger than ourselves. Awe reinforces our sense of collective identity and expands self-concept beyond the individual to incorporate whatever collective we align ourselves with most. We then become willing to behave in ways that benefit the collective above and beyond our own selfish interests. Studies even show that awe can expand our sense of collective identity beyond social boundaries, such as people identifying as part of ‘nature’ or the ‘universe’.

This line of research and reasoning lead me to believe that if awe is capable of expanding people’s sense of self identity beyond social boundaries, then awe should also be capable of motivating behavior to benefit these new categories of self identity, where people begin to identify with the environment as much as they do with social collectives. Common sense then tells us that awe is a desirable emotional state to induce in your audience if you want to encourage pro-environmental behavior. Shows like Planet Earth are doing this by exposing their audience to awe-evoking imagery. But we arrive back at the same problem. Do awe-inducing images of nature’s beauty motivate us to limit our damage to the Earth? Or are awe-evoking images of our destructive power more effective?

A negative awe image from the study

I recently put this question to the test. In an online survey/experiment, I showed one group positive awe images (vast natural landscapes) and another group negative awe images (devastation from natural disasters). I then asked them to answer questions about their behavioral intentions. I asked them things like: would they try harder to reduce waste, save water, and tell their friends and family to be environmentally conscious?

A positive awe image from the study.

There were no real differences between the positive awe condition and the negative awe condition in how participants responded, except in one subcategory of questions. This was the environmental activism section. Participants were more likely to engage in environmental activism post-study if they were in the negative awe condition. Interestingly, this was the only section of questions that contained an explicit social component, such as engaging with friends and communities, whereas the other questions were concerned with individual behavior. This was particularly fascinating, as previous research on awe has identified ability to motivate prosocial behavior and solidify people’s collective identity. The negative awe condition was more effective at motivating pro-environmental behavior if it had a social slant.

Our closest living relatives follow strict social hierarchies, which is closely related to awe. Image from Renaissance Man Journal

This can be partly explained when look at awe’s role in our evolutionary past. Psychologists believe that our ability to experience awe arose out of interactions with powerful leaders. Hierarchies are central to the existence of collective human survival, and awe, it is believed, solidified social hierarchies by making individuals feel reverence and devotion towards their leaders. Awe then shifted people’s sense of self identity towards the group and away from themselves, making them more willing to behave in a way that benefited that group. Negative awe, where fear and anxiety are also present in our experience of it, seems closer to our primordial experience of awe where humans felt it towards a powerful leader. How we feel about nature at its most powerful and fearsome mirrors how our evolutionary ancestors felt about their leaders.

It seems then, rather counter-intuitively that this type of negative awe imagery might motivate pro-environmental behavior more than positive awe imagery. But the results must be taken with a grain of salt. It was only when a social component existed as part of pro-environmental behavior that this was the case. Otherwise it seems that both positive and awe and negative awe were equally as effective at motivating pro-environmental behavior.

Humans possess an amazing level of emotional programming, which allows us to gain insight into social dynamics. Awe, it is believed is part of this programming. It is an emotion that helps us form and maintain our identities, identities that are crucial for humans to function in communities, ensuring our collective survival.


Conor is Master of Science Communication candidate at the University of Otago, with interests in astronomy, philosophy, and the environment. He also play drums for several bands in Dunedin. You can contact him at conor.feehly94@gmail.com.