When did you last get goose bumps as you contemplated something magnificent? When did you last feel like a small thread in an eternal fabric? When were you last awestruck?
I ask my students these questions and most everyone can remember feeling awestruck. My students get a bit dreamy when they describe the event: the vastness of a starry night or the power of a great thunderstorm. It makes them feel small. It fills them with wonder. They’re awestruck.
But not recently. The events they describe took place long ago. My students (who are mainly in their mid-30s) can reach back years to recall an event. But I can’t think of a singe example of a student who was awestruck just last week. It was always the distant past.
I’m starting to believe that we’re in an awe drought. Though we say “awesome” frequently, we don’t experience true skin-tingling awe very often. Perhaps we’ve explained the world too thoroughly. There aren’t many mysteries left. Or perhaps we’re just too busy. We don’t spend much time contemplating the infinite. We’d rather do e-mail.
My subjective experience has some academic backing as well. Paul Piff and Dachner Keltner make the case that “that our culture today is awe-deprived.” (Click here). They also point out that people who experience awe are more generous to strangers and more willing to sacrifice for others. An awe drought has consequences.
An awe drought might also explain the growing egotism in today’s world. Awe is the natural enemy of egotism. When you’re awestruck, you don’t feel like the center of the universe. Quite the opposite – you feel like a tiny speck of dust in a vast enterprise.
Awe holds egotism in check. If awe is declining, then egotism should be booming. And indeed, it is. A number of academic studies that trace everything from song lyrics to State-of-the-Union addresses suggest that egotism is growing – at least in America and probably elsewhere as well. (Click here, here, here, and here for examples).
What causes what? Does a lack of awe spur greater egotism? Or does growing egotism stifle awe? Or is there some third variable in play? It’s hard to sort out and the answer may not be clear-cut one way or the other. As a practical matter, however, awe is easier to experiment with than is egotism. It’s hard to imagine that we could just tell people to stop being egotistic and get any meaningful results. On the other hand, a campaign to stimulate awe-inspiring experiences might just work. If we can put a dent in the awe drought, we might be able to sort out the impact on egotism.
So, let’s seek out awe-inspiring experiences and let’s encourage our friends to do the same. Let’s see what happens. I know that I, for one, would love to say “awesome” and actually mean it.
Are egotism and awe inversely related? As one goes up, does the other go down? Could egotism and awe be two ends of the same spectrum?
Let’s start with egotism. Is it going up or down? Are our kids more egotistic than we were at the same age? Are we more self-centered than our parents were?
There’s growing evidence that egotism is on the rise. William Chopik and his colleagues, for instance, researched long-term trends in egotism by analyzing every State of the Union address from 1790 to 2012. They counted the words and analyzed the number that showed self-interest (“me’, “mine” “I”, “our”) compared to the number that showed interest in others (“you”, “your”, “his”, “theirs”). The ratio between the two became the “egocentricity index”.
Up until 1900, other-focused words dominated, outnumbering self-focused words every year. In 1920, however, the trend reversed and self-focused words have outnumbered other-focused words ever since. Though the trend is inexorably upward, there are peaks and valleys. For instance, the index spikes after economic booms and slides during recessions. (The research article is here. A less academic summary is here.)
Why would we grow more egocentric over time? Perhaps the economy accentuates the trend. From 1960 to the present, American GNP per capita has roughly tripled. The egocentricity index hasn’t grown quite so quickly but it has accelerated compared to pre-1960 levels – just as the economy has.
Emily Bianchi’s research lends credence to this thought. Bianchi measured the narcissism of over 32,000 people aged 18 to 83. She found that those who had come of age (aged 18 to 25) during recessions were less likely to be narcissistic later in life compared to those who came of age in boom times. (The research article is here. A less academic summary is here).
And while egotism has been on the rise, what’s been happening to awe? According to Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, it’s on the decline. And we should be worried about it.
Piff and Keltner argue that awe is a collective emotion “that motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good.” The authors have done a number of studies (here and here, for instance) that induce awe in research subjects and measure the effects. Those who experienced more awe were also more likely to help strangers, lend a hand after an accident, and share more resources.
Writing in the New York Times, Piff and Keltner suggest that our culture is “awe-deprived”. People spend less time staring at the stars, watching the Northern lights, camping out, or even just visiting art museums. Indeed, when was the last time you got awe-induced goose bumps?
The authors suggest that the overall reduction in awe is linked to a “broad societal shift” over the last 50 years. “People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others.”
Did the rise in egocentrism cause the decline in awe? If so, could we reduce egocentrism by increasing awe in our culture? It’s hard to say but it’s certainly worth a try. Let’s head for the hills.