Communication and Technology  

The Effects of Natural- and Supernatural-Based Awe Experiences in Virtual Reality

Articles about the recent total solar eclipse appeared around the world using the language of awe – “awe-inspiring,” “awe-struck,” “total awe.” People talked about what a deeply profound experience it was for them, that sense of awe where you realize both how small your life is and how immense the world is, and you are left with a sense of calm and gratitude.

Yu-Hao Lee, Media, Production, Management, and Technology associate professor at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, and colleagues at National ChengChi University in Taiwan, wanted to explore how experiencing the transcendental state of awe can make us better humans – socially, psychologically and spiritually – and that both natural awe – such as an eclipse or dizzying waterfall – and supernatural awe – constructions of boundless environments and experiences – can be achieved through virtual reality (VR).

The researchers studied 125 volunteers using VR headsets in Taiwan. The participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: a control group viewing a VR concert video; a natural-awe group experiencing a view of Earth from space; and a supernatural-awe group immersed in a virtual concert featuring a giant avatar of the artist Travis Scott performing in various fantastical environments.

They sought to compare the effects of supernatural awe, natural awe and a control condition on participants’ sense of vastness, need for accommodation (adjusting one’s mental frameworks to understand experiences), self-improvement intentions and prosocial intentions.

Interestingly, both supernatural and natural awe left participants feeling a similar sense of vastness – that humbling realization of one’s own smallness in the grand scheme of things. But contrary to expectations, supernatural awe didn’t evoke a significantly stronger need for accommodation than its natural counterpart or the control condition.

The VR experiences also stirred up some intriguing emotional responses. Supernatural awe had participants on the edge of their seats, eliciting enjoyment, arousal and suspense. Natural awe, on the other hand, left them with a deeper sense of appreciation and warmth. These findings hint at the unique flavors of awe that VR can provide.

The research has important theoretical and practical implications. It demonstrates the potential of VR-induced awe experiences as an effective tool for motivating positive outcomes such as prosocial behavior and self-improvement. The study also extends the understanding of awe’s benefits, suggesting that self-improvement is another significant outcome alongside the well-established prosocial effects.

From a practical perspective, the findings open possibilities for therapeutic and self-help applications. VR-induced awe, whether supernatural or natural, could be employed in mindfulness training, personal growth programs or even in addressing mental health issues. The ability to create awe-inspiring experiences in VR offers a promising avenue for fostering well-being and personal development.

As VR technology continues to advance, the opportunities for crafting immersive and transformative experiences that elicit awe will only expand. This study underscores the importance of exploring the potential of supernatural awe in VR and its impact on individuals and society. Future research should further investigate the long-term effects of VR-induced awe and its applications across various domains.

The original paper, “Helping others and improving myself: The effects of natural- and supernatural-based awe in virtual reality,” was published in Computers in Human Behavior, volume 156, July 2024.

Authors: Jih-Hsuan (Tammy) ,Lin, Yu-Hao Lee, Ji-Wei Yang and Christine Cook.

This summary was written by Gigi Marino.

Posted: April 30, 2024
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