‘Agency detection’ – seeing purposeful minds at work behind seemingly random events – is a powerful human instinct that is thought to play an important role in the generation of religious beliefs.
There’s quite a body of research that shows that a persons ‘agency detection’ can be turned up in circumstances where they are made to feel uncertain or confused. Piercarlo Valdesolo (Claremont McKenna College, USA ) and Jesse Graham (University of Southern California) reckoned that giving people a sense of awe might just unsettle them enough to start detecting agents at work in the world around them.
They ran a series of experiments, all of which involved showing their subjects videos that induced feelings of awe or other emotional states.
For example, to induce awe they showed a dramatic footage from the BBC nature documentary ‘Planet Earth’ or (just in case ‘Planet Earth’ made people think of God, rather than awe) an advert for an LCD TV with amazing imagery, such as waterfalls tumbling through city streets.
As controls, they showed a light-hearted BBC nature documentary (Walk on the Wild Side) or, bizarrely, a 1959 interview conducted by Mike Wallace (this latter was expected to induce zero emotional reaction).
In some experiments, they then simply asked directly about their subjects’ belief in supernatural control. In others, to ensure that they were measuring agency detection rather than belief in god, they showed their subjects series of random numbers and asked them to pick out the ones that had been put together by humans rather than computer (none of them had been).
What they found, repeatedly, was that watching an awe-inspiring video increased the tendency to see agents at work. So, for example, they were more likely to believe that the strings of random numbers had been put together by humans (see Figure).
They also measured their subjects’ tolerance of uncertainty “I feel uncomfortable when I don’t understand the reason why an event occurred in my life”. What they found was that watching the awe-inspiring videos did indeed increase their subjects’ tolerance of uncertainty.
Watching these videos also affected other emotions (like joy, contentedness, and gratitude). But, running a statistical approach known as ‘mediation analysis’, they found that the balance of probabilities strongly suggested that awe increase agency detection both directly and through increasing intolerance of uncertainty.
They point out an interesting observation from other studies. It seems that in individuals who are prone to feelings of awe , this emotion doesn’t trigger intolerance of uncertainty. If you feel awe a lot, you get used to its effects.
And this lead them to conclude that what they unveiled here is a short-term, immediate response to awe-inspiring events:
Although the chronic relation between experiences of awe and uncertainty tolerance (Shiota et al., 2007) suggests that uncertainty tolerance can be strengthened over time, the present results suggest that in the moment of awe, some of the fear and trembling can be mitigated by perceiving an author’s hand in the experience
Valdesolo P, & Graham J (2014). Awe, uncertainty, and agency detection. Psychological science, 25 (1), 170-8 PMID: 24247728