Investigating positive and threat-based awe in natural and built environments
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Staggeringly immense or beautiful awe-inspiring structures, such as religious monumental architecture, have long been important to human culture and society. With the emerging psychological literature on awe, a nascent avenue of research is beginning to uncover specific psychosocial and physiological effects of feeling awe through architecture. Most psychological work relies on nature imagery to evoke awe; yet architecturally-induced awe, which is studied very little, has enormous implications for how awe-eliciting architecture—such as cultural and religious sites—facilitate their sociocultural functions through built form. Besides the awe-inducing stimulus, the specific type of awe elicited also has potential to produce different effects. Many positive effects associated with feeling awe have been demonstrated empirically, including increased prosocial behavior, increased feelings of connection to others, and enhanced physical health through lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines. Recent work has turned to the darker side of awe, investigating effects of feeling threat-based awe, or awe elicited through a threatening stimulus. Although both positive and threat-based awe result in a smaller sense of self, threat-based awe is associated with greater feelings of powerlessness and fear than positive awe. Thus, we hypothesize that awe-inspiring environments may have distinct effects based on whether they induce positive awe or threat-based awe, as well as whether the environment is natural or built. Specifically, we predict that while positive awe will facilitate feelings of universality and integration into larger groups (e.g., the world), threat-based awe will promote social connection to smaller social groups (e.g., one’s community). We further predict that this effect will be more pronounced for architectural environments, which have inherent social meaning, compared to natural environments. Across three online studies, we explore effects of positive and threat-based awe elicited through nature and architecture. Study 1 (N = 116) uses videos of natural phenomena used in previous work to replicate previous findings on positive and threat-based awe: We show that threat-based awe leads to greater feelings of powerlessness and fear than positive awe, and that both positive and threat-based awe result in a smaller perceived self-size than no awe. Study 2 (N = 100) extends these findings to architectural environments chosen to elicit positive and threat-based awe. While both awe conditions in Study 2 led to a smaller perceived self-size than the control condition as predicted, the architectural video meant to elicit threat-based awe elicited positive awe for most participants. Because we failed to elicit threat-based awe with architectural stimuli in Study 2, Study 3 (N = 85) compared only effects of positive awe elicited through natural and architectural environments on feelings of universality and identification with others. We find that both natural and architecturally induced positive awe similarly promote feelings of universality and connection with people all over the world, compared to a control condition. This research expands our understanding of how we respond to beautiful and threatening awe-evoking environments, from ancient monumental structures and natural phenomena to the supertall skyscrapers and natural disasters that are becoming increasingly common. This research furthermore helps us understand what awe-related effects demonstrated in cognitive science will have implications for architectural design.
Cite this version of the work
Hanna Negami (2020). Investigating positive and threat-based awe in natural and built environments. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/16318