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Past research has suggested that one of the psychological variables associated with experiencing awe is a deep and uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty – an inability to wrap one’s mind around the information presented to us. Whether this be a result of contemplating the infinite depths of space, a beautiful piece of art, or a strikingdouble rainbow, awe makes us want to know what does it all mean?

A new paper by Jesse Graham and I demonstrates that we will resolve this uncertainty in a particularly interesting way: through something called agency detection. That is, by inferring that the stimulus in front of us must have been designed by an intentional agent, like a human or a God.  Research has linked agency detection to the resolution of uncertainty in other domains, but this work is the first to show how it operates as a result of experiencing awe. We predicted that the uncertainty people feel when they experience awe will cause them to detect agents in two specific ways: 1) through increased belief in supernatural agents, like God and ghosts, and 2) increased belief that random numerical patterns were actually designed by humans.

We conducted five studies that tested these predictions. In general, participants across these studies were made to feel either awe, amusement or a neutral emotional state, then they completed an individual difference measure known to measure their ability to tolerate feelings of uncertainty, and finally they were then asked to indicate either their belief in supernatural agents, or their belief that series of number strings were randomly generated by a computer or intentionally designed by a human. Across these five studies we found consistent support for our hypotheses. Awe made participants less tolerant of uncertainty (compared to participants in the other conditions), and in turn these feelings of uncertainty led to increased agency detection in both the domains of supernatural belief and pattern perception. This suggests that one way we make sense of the awe-inspiring experiences in our lives that most deeply challenge our understanding of the world is through reinterpreting them as the product of some kind of intentional actor. By seeing agency even where there might be none.

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