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Can a Shared Sense of Awe Help Us Overcome Political Polarization?

Research indicates that feeling awe can make you humbler and more connected to those you disagree with.

pine tree and Northern Lights

“Polarizing people is a good way to win an election, and also a good way to wreck a country,” noted indomitable journalist Molly Ivins.

In the 20-plus years since Ivins penned those words, political polarization has had an impact on old and new democracies around the world. It’s so commonplace that more than 35 books on partisan dynamics have been published in the past decade alone.

Outlining the problem is easy, but finding solutions to these increasingly rancorous divisions is challenging.

Enter University of California–Berkeley researchers Daniel Stancato and Dacher Keltner, PhD. The pair set out to see how awe — a commingled feeling of wonder, veneration, and dread — might increase social connection and thereby reduce polarization.

Stancato and Keltner induced awe in one group of participants by showing them a time-lapse video of the night sky and by asking them to recall times when they’d experienced awe in the past. Two other groups watched either a neutral or an amusing video.

Following the experiments, the researchers measured the participants’ sense of conviction around capital punishment, racial bias in policing, and immigration as well as their antagonism toward those who didn’t share their views. They also explored how participants felt about engaging with political opponents, including someone who was a neighbor.

The results, published in the journal Emotion, suggest that the group who experienced awe had increased humility and decreased desire for distance from political opponents.

“What we found is that people experiencing awe expressed less conviction and less certainty in their own beliefs,” Stancato says. “And that in turn predicted the extent to which they would be more likely to say, ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t be so upset if I had a coworker who felt differently than me. Or if I had a roommate who felt differently than me.’”

The findings are consistent with prior research showing that experiencing awe can improve our sense of altruism and strengthen relationships.

“I don’t want to give people the impression that awe is yet another quick fix that can be ‘used’ when handy or necessary while the rest of its implications . . . for a whole new way of living, a reformed society — at the level of childrearing, education, ecology, religion and spirituality, and even legislative and diplomatic deliberation — are completely overlooked,” explains Kirk Schneider, PhD, author of Rediscovery of Aweand Awakening to Awe.

“Most anything that aspires to the quick fix and absolute answer interferes with awe cultivation. On the other hand, almost anything that’s approached with maximal presence or whole-body awareness tends to be more conducive to awe,” he says.

“It’s important for people to find out what elicits that emotion in you,” Stancato suggests. “It could be architecture, it could be art, it could be music.”

And once you practice experiencing that sense of awe, you might have the ability to break through your own polarizing thoughts.

For more tips on cultivating awe, read our article “Awestruck.”

is an Experience Life senior editor.

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