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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring/Summer 2014

Understanding the Sensation of Awe (Without Spoiling It!)
With Dacher Keltner, PhD

By Bradley Cannon, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Do your psychology courses often feature unethical events like the Milgram and Monster Experiments? If so, you might have become convinced that people are inherently evil—and that’s why Dr. Dacher Keltner (University of California, Berkeley) is here to remind you about the positive characteristics within us all.

Dr. Keltner is the creator of the Jen ratio, a means to calculate the good and bad things in a person’s life. This ratio involves putting as many positive things as you can think of in the numerator of a fraction and then all the negative things in the denominator as a measurement of goodness. He chose this concept not only to honor the ancient Confucian principle, but also because it summarizes a lot of what researchers have learned: the more good that people bring out in themselves and others, the more inspired, purposeful, and healthier they feel.

As he says in his book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, "One can apply the Jen ratio to any realm: our interior life, more satisfying and more trying periods for a marriage, the tenor of a family reunion, the goodwill of a neighborhood, the rhetoric of presidents, the spirit of historical eras.” Taking a moment to make your own Jen ratios helps you "take stock of your attempt at living a meaningful life” (Keltner, 2009, p. 5).

Dr. Keltner studies multiple Jen emotions such as embarrassment, smiling, laughter, touch, love, and compassion. In particular, he focuses on awe, which has long been valued by philosophers and even environmentalist perspectives. However, surprisingly few researchers have applied scientific efforts to understand how awe works and where it really comes from.

The Importance of Awe
Tornado and thunderstorm warnings threaten the nation, yet it is warm and sunny in California when Dr. Keltner sits down to speak with us at Psi Chi. As he explains, "The field of emotions mainly focused on negative emotions until Barb Fredrickson, Mike McCullough, and Bob Emmons got us to think about the positive ones. This delay may have occurred because, in some ways, emotions are difficult to study. I might also speculate that people tend to shy away from studying things that seem mystical or magical because they do not often think those things can be put through the lens of study.” However, he and others are beginning to find that awe is actually crucial in shaping human lives. In fact, he believes that measuring awe could become one of the most important health markers that we have.

"We’re learning that the experience of awe in the lab and out in the world makes people modest. It makes them humble and makes them want to share resources with others. Awe makes them feel less entitled and less egocentric. Data are starting to show that awe is associated with an increase in oxytocin, which makes people kinder to others. Awe is also beginning to be associated with reduced levels of cytokines, which are part of the body’s inflammation response to toxins and injury, and when produced at chronic levels, are bad for health.”

Dr. Keltner has conducted many studies to simulate the sensation of awe—even once with a tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the Berkley Life Sciences Building (Hochman, 2010). "In studies with tall beautiful eucalyptus trees, it literally took only a minute or two for people to feel more purposeful and humble.” In some sense, generated experiences via television and videogames will never duplicate the pure awe that people feel, for example, "while backpacking in the Eastern Sierra. Anyone who loves the outdoors knows how important awe is within our appreciation of nature.”

"It will never be the same—not even with IMAX!” Dr. Keltner jokes, although he fully acknowledges that incredible technology platforms are always improving. "These platforms allow us more of an opportunity to make people feel awe, but we’re also starting a partnership with the Sierra Club to study how awe in nature helps people reorient their approach to the world.”

Spoiling Awe? Or Solving It?
Dr. Keltner has often been asked, ‘don’t you think you’re going to ruin awe if you study it?’ but luckily that hasn’t happened yet. In his opinion: "One of the interesting things we’re uncovering in our work is how awe varies from person to person. In particular, we’re starting to study how some people get goosebumps all the time, although others rarely experience them.” This research is beginning to show that awe originates from the emotional response of a subordinate to a powerful and potentially harmful leader or thing. As stated in a recent article, "In our primordial past, in order to ensure stability in important social hierarchies, awe might have been the mechanism prompting adaptive submissive responses to those more powerful” (Smith, 2013, para 9).

This is why most instances of awe involve something larger than the beholder. "I think the answer we can provide right now of why encounters with big things cause us to feel awe is because (a) they’re threatening and (b) they require that we really orient and explore carefully. The world is always providing things that are more vast than our understanding, though awe does not always come from large things.”

For example, when asked to list a few things that cause Dr. Keltner to feel awe, he readily and reverently describes

  • redwood trees;
  • patterns of light and shadow on the ground;
  • when he hears the wind;
  • when he watches little babies move around their environment;
  • inspiring political figures; and
  • music like Iggy Pop.

"Awe has always been really important to me,” Dr. Keltner says. "I feel it every day. It happens through people, nature, aesthetics, and politics. That is what is really challenging about the emotion—it comes through so many things.”

This is nothing new for Dr. Keltner. He grew up with an appreciation for art because his mother was a literature reviewer and his father was an artist. In his own words, he was something of an unhappy kid. "But then, the thing that really excited me—the thing that got me interested in Jen science even—occurred when I started reading about the Paul Ekman ‘atlas of emotions’ and the Darwinian look at the body, face, and voice. I was truly blown away by the fact that it is possible to scientifically study emotions, and that has really run through my work in every imaginable way from studying embarrassment to power to goosebumps to emoticons.”

"Yes!” Dr. Keltner insists, indeed meaning the smiley faces most often seen on social media. "Emoticons are important for many reasons. They are artistic. They are funny. They are ways that we can communicate subtle things ironically or in a satirical way.”

In fact, Facebook has hired Dr. Keltner and a Pixar illustrator to apply concepts in Charles Darwin’s book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Darwin, 1872), to design new animated emoticons that use universally understood expressions. "We created an emoticon for feeling dumbfounded, and people love that they can share that. From the psychological science perspective, millions of viewers have crafted—through evolutionary processes—tone of voice, facial expression, and all these things that we study, so the challenge is to move this into the site. The pile of dirt, the deadpan face, or the little sympathy expression—these are all evocative. They all give us a really precise emotion that is a little bit softer than saying, ‘hey I’m angry with you.’ So in some ways, showing an emoticon of frustration can be easier than expressing it with words.”

The Greater Good Science Center Dr. Keltner is presently faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center, which started at UC Berkley in 2001. "The Center’s mission is to take new emotions science and translate it in a way that gets it right out to the people who make a difference and change the world like teachers, judges, nurses, and doctors. What we do,” Dr. Keltner explains, "is we have a dynamic prize-winning website where hundreds of thousands of people come, for example, to learn how to teach fourth graders about compassion. We are actively getting into schools through a Greater Good Summer Institute for Educators, and we also host The Greater Good Gratitude Summit through the John Templeton Foundation to profile, house, and amplify researchers’ works.”

Much to Do
Dr. Keltner has many—he says too many!—plans for the future. "I’m helping people figure out how to study the benefits of outdoor immersion in activities run by the Sierra Club. I think we’ve got 5 or 10 more years to work on awe, and maybe we’ll be able to answer where awe comes from in our evolution in a few years too. We’re going to remote parts of the world to study emotions in other cultures. I’m excited about strengthening the Greater Good Science Center to build educational curriculum or health curriculum to help with healthcare. I will write more books and do more teaching. I’ve also been helping Facebook for the past few years to make some of the problems on their site more resolvable, friendly, and compassionate.”

Along with this, Dr. Keltner has a busy home life too. "Having kids and raising young children really taught me that Darwin was right about sympathy being our strongest instinct. It was that massive example of caring, touch, and all the things I had studied that persuaded me in my personal life that we need to be compassionate. There’s a lot of data that says the key to happiness is in helping others, so making other facets of life into opportunities for compassion has become a thread throughout my experiences working for Pixar and everywhere else.”

In that regard, Dr. Keltner concludes with some straightforward advice to help students interested in pursuing a career in Jen science. "First, the Greater Good Science Center has a free moot course on ‘The Science of Happiness’ that launches in the fall.” He encourages students to take that along with a class on music appreciation, painting, environmentalism, and then a class on human emotion.

Darwin, C. (1872). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London, England: John Murray

Hochman, D. (2010, December). The key to fulfillment. O, The Oprah Magazine, 11(12). Retrieved from

Keltner, D. (2009). Born to be good: The science of a meaningful life. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company

Smith, R. (2013, October 12). Goosebumps and Dr. King’s dream speech [Web log post]. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Dacher Keltner, PhD, received his BA from UC Santa Barbara in 1984 and his PhD from Stanford University in 1989. After a postdoc at UCSF with Paul Ekman, in 1992 he took his first academic job at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In 1996, he returned to Berkeley’s Psychology Department where he is now a full professor and director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab. Dr. Keltner’s research focuses on the biological and evolutionary origins of compassion, awe, love, beauty, power, social class, and inequality. He is the coauthor of two textbooks and author of the best-selling Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life and The Compassionate Instinct. His publications include over 160 scientific articles, and he has written for the New York Times Magazine, The London Times, and Utne Reader. His research has been covered in TIME, Newsweek, the New York Times, the BBC, CNN, NPR, The Wallstreet Journal, and has been a focus in two panels with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. Dr. Keltner has collaborated with directors at Pixar, a design team at Facebook, on projects at Google, and was recently featured in Tom Shadyac’s movie I Am. He has received the outstanding teacher and research mentor awards from UC Berkeley and seen 20 of his PhD students and postdoctoral fellows become professors. WIRED magazine recently rated Dr. Keltner’s podcasts from his course "Emotion” as one of the five best educational downloads, and Utne Reader selected him as one of its fifty 2008 visionaries. Dr. Keltner also serves as the faculty director of the Berkeley Greater Good Science Center.

Copyright 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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