Pondering The Enormity Of The Universe: Opportunity For Self-Transcendence Or An Existential Threat?

Staring up at a star-filled sky can be a powerful experience. The sheer enormity of the universe can be difficult for us to grasp. Taking the time to stop and wrestle with the vastness of it all, and our place within it, offers an opportunity for perspective.

For some, this moment of perspective may present a powerful moment of self-transcendence, freeing us from the stresses of everyday life. For others, it may present as an existential psychological threat.

Speaking broadly, past research has found that the psychological effects of exposure to awe-inducing experiences can be two-fold.

For example, experiencing awe – such as breathtaking scenes of nature – can instill prosocial tendencies, and make us more willing to volunteer our time or help others in hypothetical scenarios (1–4). Crucially, it also has the power to make us feel small and humble and, in turn, facilitate a sense of oneness and connection with the planet and those around us (5,6).

But past research also suggests there can be a dark side to awe. For example, the experience of awe has been theorized as an emotion bordering on fear (7). Indeed, recent work has examined the impact of “negative awe” experiences, such as exposing people to tornadoes or volcanoes, can have contrastingly negative implications for well-being (3,8).

So, that star-filled sky: Is it a self-transcending moment of serenity, or a confronting insight into an indifferent, cold, and limitless universe?

Across two studies (9), we exposed participants to the enormity of the universe in order to examine the potential psychological impacts, focusing on variables such as emotion, empathy, and connection with others. The video used in the experimental manipulation was designed to show how small our planet is in the context of the universe: you can see it for yourself here.

We found that, relative to a control condition, participants confronted with the enormity of the universe felt awe-struck and small. However, whether this feeling of smallness led to positive or negative consequences depended on self-esteem. For those with low self-esteem, being exposed to the enormity of the universe made them feel increased negative emotions, together with a reduced sense of identification with others, less empathy for victims of a humanitarian disaster, and less egalitarianism. These effects were not found among high self-esteem participants. On the contrary, those with high self-esteem experienced increased positive emotion.

Crucially, we were able to identify that self-diminishment is the mechanism by which these effects occur. Specifically, pondering the enormity of the universe, and the meagreness of our existence within it, makes us feel small and insignificant. In turn, the sheer scope and indifference of it all render everyday concerns as inconsequential. If you have generally high self-esteem, our data suggest that you are likely to embrace these feelings and experience the positive side-effects of cosmic perspective induction. However, low self-esteem individuals strive to resist these feelings of self-diminishment and are less likely to enjoy the positive consequences.

One thing is for sure: pondering the awe-inspiring, mind-bending enormity of the universe certainly makes us feel something. For millennia, humans have looked up in wonder, but it was perhaps not until space exploration began in the 1950s that we were offered the opportunity to truly visualize the enormity of the universe.

For the first time, we truly saw ourselves as a tiny speck within an immense sea of blackness. Whether this insight is seen as therapeutic or as threatening appears to depend on our pre-existing self-esteem.

Published by Charlie Crimston & Matthew Hornsey

School of Psychology, Campbell Rd, St Lucia, University of Queensland

These findings are described in the article entitled A microscopic dot on a microscopic dot: Self-esteem buffers the negative effects of exposure to the enormity of the universe, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 76 (2018) 198-207). This work was conducted by Matthew J. Hornsey, Callum Faulkner, and Charlie Crimston from the University of Queensland, and Sam Moreton from the University of Sydney.


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