Some awe

What kinds of articles are most likely to be emailed by users of the New York Times website? Researchers did a six-month study of the most-emailed list and discovered that, more than utility or surprisingness or feel-good factors (which were all helpful for an article’s prospects), it was a sense of awe that made a given article most likely to be shared.

One emotion we focus on in particular is awe. Stimuli that open the mind to vast and often unconsidered possibilities can inspire awe, a unique human emotion that expands a reader’s frame of reference (Keltner and Haidt 2003). Awe is the emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self (Haidt 2006). It occurs when two conditions are met (Keltner and Haidt 2003). First, people experience something vast: either physically vast such as the grand canyon, conceptually vast such as a grand theory or finding, or socially vast such as fame or power. Second, the vast experience cannot be accommodated by existing mental structures. Intellectual epiphanies, natural wonders, and great works of art can all make people feel a sense of awe (Shiota, Keltner, and Mossman 2007). Similarly, news stories about a treatment that may cure AIDS or a hockey goalie who continues to play even with brain cancer may both inspire some level of awe.

Awe may be linked to social transmission for a number of reasons. First, awe encourages people to connect with others and spread the word. People who have had epiphanies through drug use or religious experiences, for example, seem to have a deep need to talk about them or proselytize (James 1902; Keltner and Haidt 2003). Other types of awe-inducing experiences may activate the same psychological mechanisms evoked by epiphanies. Second, awe inducing stimuli also tend to be entertaining, inspiring, and contain a great deal of information. Each one of these aspect in itself is a reason that people may share things. Third, because awe-inducing experiences are characterized by the accommodation of existing mental structures, they should be particularly likely to drive people to talk to others to understand how they feel (Rime, Mesquita, Philippot, and Boca 1991). Finally, awe-inducing experiences encourage people to look beyond themselves and deepen connections to the broader social world (Shiota, Keltner, and Mossman 2007). All of these factors suggest that awe should lead people to want to share.

from “Social Transmission and Viral Culture,” by Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, 2010 :: via

Originally published at

Add Your Comments