I Am In Awe Of What Passes For Science


I’m traveling to the Heartland Climate Conference today. Special speakers dinner and pep talk later, and, rumor has it, cigars and whiskey.

I started that rumor, and I have cigars, so it has a good chance of obtaining. I don’t know who will provide the whiskey. Stay tuned: Thursday through Saturday, I’ll be blogging about the event.

Meanwhile, I present this most scientific “study”, brought to our attention by reader Gavin (not that Gavin).

During a series of studies recently published by the American Psychological Association in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” Piff and his team of researchers found that inducing a sense of awe in people could promote generous, helpful, and positive social behavior.

“We find that awe makes people more ethical, less entitled, more cooperative — all of which often play key roles in organizational and workplace success,” Piff explained to Business Insider.

During one study, for example, researchers had a group of volunteers stand in a grove of towering trees and look up at them for one minute while another group looked instead at a tall building. Then experimenters spilled a handful of pens, seemingly by accident, and volunteers in awe of the vast trees were deemed to be the most helpful in picking them up.

Wee p-values confirmed the massive awes. Not only that, I myself have confirmed this “research”. I am very tall and find that many people, doubtless in awe of me, often pick up the objects I drop. What more proof do you need?

What’s the saying? Something like: If research in the “soft sciences” isn’t commonsense, it’s false. At least we now know, thanks to researcher Piff (his real name), “Awe is an emotional response to perceptually vast stimuli that transcend current frames of reference.” Maybe this is why Tom Cruise wears lifts.

From the abstract:

Guided by conceptual analyses of awe as a collective emotion…we tested the hypothesis that awe can result in a diminishment of the individual self and its concerns…[D]ispositional tendencies to experience awe predicted greater generosity in an economic game above and beyond other prosocial emotions …[I]nductions of awe…increased ethical decision-making.

We also learn that “the effects of awe on prosociality are explained, in part, by feelings of a small self.” Perhaps this is why I am antisocial. More work clearly needs to be done to study the “inability to awe” in the tall.

But wait, there’s more. Here comes the Uh-oh: “These findings indicate that awe may help situate individuals within broader social contexts and enhance collective concern.”

Our findings should be extended and expanded upon in several ways. Building on the current research, investigations should further illuminate the sufficient features and necessary conditions of experiences of awe. In this regard, examining the interplay between vastness and accommodation will be particularly fruitful.

It can’t be long until “programs”, administered by your better sort of government bureaucracy, are suggested which will instill awe.

Listen: on a scale of -7/5 to e11, how in awe are you of this study? Your answer will be a number, and will, therefore and ipso facto, be scientific. By answering, you are doing science.

We don’t need to worry about putting a number to an emotion (or thought) as complex as awe, because science often puts numbers to emotions (or thoughts) as complex as awe, as we just did. This is how you know the number you have provided accurately measures awe. Because we measured awe with a number. And numbers are scientific.

Science really is amazing, isn’t it? We’d be nowhere without it. Imagine not being able to put a number to an emotion (or thought) as complex as awe! Why, then we wouldn’t have numbers for emotions (or thoughts) like awe! And then we couldn’t have wee p-values!


I’m now going to have a cigar and as much whiskey as it takes to forget this.


  1. James

    I am in awe of my jealousy of your cigars and whiskey. How much awe? Only e^5. In the near future, science will determine that covariates, such as having whiskey and a pipe waiting at home, decreased my awe to e^5 from what should have probably been e^8.

    The p value will be 0.04, which is safely within the bounds of needing more grant money significance.

  2. Awe requires increasingly intense stimuli to be maintained. Perhaps their next study should include how long looking up at trees works and how long before everyone is yawning and ignoring the dropped pens. (Or perhaps they should have picked better buildings to look up at?) Kitten videos on the internet, or better yet, real kittens might be awe-inspiring for a bit longer, but there’s still diminishing returns. I’m not sure how useful something that requires more and more awe to get the same results is useful, but hey, it’s science so it must be true.

    Are you sure your height inspires awe? There are other reasons why people will pick up pens and help others, some of which are not related feelings of awe. Drop a few dozen more pens and see if you can find something new with a wee p-value. Maybe there’s a paper hiding in there!

  3. Scotian

    Quoted from memory and so some of the words may be off “Big Brother could orchestrate this in a number of different ways, Piff says, place very large pictures of himself everywhere in order to inspire awe, schedule collective events of two minutes in duration throughout the day in order to encourage uniformity of though …”. The rest is muddled but I think that love was in there somewhere as well.

  4. Scotian

    Sheri, dropping a handkerchief might produce a more lasting sense of awe. At least for some folks.

  5. Could not someone be in awe of a tall building? Perhaps an architectural engineer would register pi^2 SAUs (standard awe units) while gazing at a particularly graceful building.

  6. John B()

    John Cook:

    How would pi^2 (SAU) translate into (i)*m*pei ABUs (Awe Base Units)?
    (i of course refers to imaginary
    m could be “massive undertaking” or simply mass)


    When the Bible talks about the “Fear of God”, more often than not, it’s referring to a sense of awe.

  7. Gary

    They’re in awe that you wear a hat. Not a backwards baseball cap, but a hat.

    All seriousness aside (/sarc in case it’s not obvious), my observations of authentic, practicing, evangelical Christians — those Piff and reasonable people would characterize as “generous, helpful, and positive” — are apt to express an awe for God way beyond the average person’s belief in a “higher power.” The question is: what comes first, the awe or the personality traits?

  8. Ray

    I think Paul Piff’s study is piffle.

  9. Unfortunately social psychology research has been going around in circles now for 50 years and will probably continue to go around in circles until the funding is cut off and people find more productive things to do with their time. Back in my university days I once took a course in psychological modelling, which was based on computer modelling (but they were closer to simple flow charts). Since I had a good grasp of theory of knowledge and had already published books on computer microprocessor programming years before I entered university, I understood that what the class was teaching made no sense and the person who constructed the course, didn’t understand how computer programs were designed either. When I pointed this out the lecturer was deeply offended and suggested I go teach the class. After 30 years of reflection, the course seems even more stupid and useless to me now then it did back then. I wonder if it’s still being taught.

  10. Will: It’s probably a requirement now. 🙂

  11. Uncle Mike

    Awe shucks, but wonder never seizes.

  12. DEEBEE

    Since conservatives are known to be more charitable, donation wise, then it must be that they are more awe-ful. While liberals are just awful?!

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