October 7, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Can Psychology Measure Awe?

Psychologists get their hands into everything, but the objectivity of their science is questionable.

People are complex beings. They can be manipulated, but they can also resist manipulation. It’s impossible to know all the background factors and variables they may exhibit in certain situations. Let’s see how well science can measure “awe” – which psychologists at the University of Buffalo took on as a science project. Did they gather true knowledge, or just buffalo their readers?

We experience the emotion of awe when exposed to something larger than the self. Awe can arise from the practices of a particular faith tradition or a grand natural vista, but it does not necessarily have to be dramatic.

Here were their variables:

  • Self-distancing: the ability to position yourself as outside your experience, as if a bystander.
  • Self-immersion: the feeling of being inside your experience, seeing yourself through your own eyes.
  • Religion or nature: Coping strategies when under stress.
  • Performance stressor:  a task likely to elicit a challenge or threat response.
  • Challenge: a positive stressor a person may feel able to handle.
  • Threat: a negative stressor a person may feel is unmanageable.

The question: Does an experience of awe produce a challenge response or a threat response?

The hypothesis: People who engage in self-distancing when experiencing awe respond positively to a performance stressor. People who engage in self-immersion, by contrast, respond negatively.

The experiment: “The researchers had 182 participants complete a measure of spontaneous self-distancing. They were then exposed to either an awe-inducing nature video or a neutral documentary on small sea creatures and later asked to prepare and deliver a two-minute speech on a setback or obstacle they experienced.”

The measurements: Heart rate, amount of blood pumped per minute, and the flow of blood into the tissues. These measurements contribute to the “bio-psycho-social model of challenge and threat.”

Conclusions: The hypothesis was confirmed. Previous studies had shown the value of awe for well-being. This study, the authors feel, refines the effects of awe, showing it is not always positive. “To maximally benefit from awe when facing subsequent stressors, we may need to take a step back from ourselves before we take it all in,” says Mark Seery, associate professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo.

Critique: This all looks scientifically legit, doesn’t it? The psychologist asks a question needing clarification. He or she (we’ll use “he” since Mark was featured in the press release) defines terms. He devises a hypothesis and tests it, using standard procedures to gather data on measurable quantities on a sufficient sample of human subjects. He uses uniform techniques on the subjects, using controls (“a neutral documentary on small sea creatures” – maybe watching goldfish in a bowl). He interprets the data to check whether the hypothesis was confirmed or falsified. Based on his results, he makes recommendations to the public for their benefit. Who could criticize this beautiful example of science in action?

We agree that a sense of awe is good, but we have some questions about this project. We want to know if the results are due to confirmation bias, chance or poor experimental design. What dubious assumptions went into the project design and its conclusions? Let’s note some potential problems.

  • Subjectivity. Not all “awe” is the same. Religious awe may be different from nature awe. In religion, people may feel awe at God’s love or his wrath. In nature, people may feel awe at a king cobra, lightning, or a peaceful spring wildflower scene. Are these sensations of awe really comparable for scientific analysis?
  • Imprecision. The definitions of awe, religion, self-immersion and other terms seem squishy.
  • Sample bias. The 182 participants may not represent a valid enough sample of the human population to draw generalizations.
  • Mental variability. Not everyone experiences awe at the same level.
  • Object variability. Not everyone experiences awe at the same objects.
  • Subject surroundings. The subject could have been affected by sleep, diet, or previous stresses before participating, which were unknown to the investigator. The attractiveness of the investigator, or even the lighting and decor in the room could have unconscious influences.
  • Subject understanding. Some of the subjects may not have understood what the project was about.
  • Subject obedience. Persons may have differed in their ability to follow instructions.
  • Stressor variability. Not everyone is stressed by giving a speech; some may fear it, but others may enjoy it.
  • Physical variability. Blood flow does not necessarily respond the same way in all humans under awe or stress.
  • Subject integrity. Participants can lie about their experiences, or fake out the psychologist for various reasons.
  • Replication. Would the results be replicated by a different team using the same method with different people in a different country, brought up in a different culture, social class and education?
  • Confirmation bias. The psychologists may have had a hunch what the correct conclusion should be, and may have unconsciously steered the data collection to confirm it.
  • Worldview bias. Did the psychologists’ beliefs about human nature color their experimental design and conclusions?
  • Other bias. Were the psychologists influenced by peer pressure, publish or perish pressure, funding pressure (to confirm what the funding source wanted), desire for fame, desire to promote their institution, or other motivations other than a purely objective desire to know?

We’re just getting started with potential problems here. There may be “under-determination of theory by data” in this experiment (i.e., different theories might account for the same data). Did the scientists eliminate all sources of subjectivity and bias? Did they attempt to falsify their conclusion? Was the peer review adequate? Readers may be able to lengthen this list of problems. Soon, the whole project might look very suspect.

Understand that we’re not trying to be critical, because we pretty much agree with the conclusions, that awe is a good and healthy emotion to have, and the ability to distance yourself from stressors probably improves the awe experience. What we’re illustrating is that even with apparently well-designed and well-executed psychological experiments, all kinds of issues can diminish the value of any conclusions. If that happens with a fairly neutral psychology project like this, how much more with more controversial psychological claims? The closet of psychology is stuffed with skeletons: phrenology, racism, female hysteria, lobotomy, shock therapy – embarrassments that psychology departments would rather forget.

Is psychology a science at all? Some parts of it may be. For instance, educational psychology can produce testable results, leading to advice for teachers and students on best methods for memorization or comprehension. Other parts, however, get really weird. Psychological theories come and go more often than women’s fashions. Some parts of psychology are clearly evil, justifying sexual perversions (Kinsey) or criminal behavior (Clarence Darrow). The worst charlatans are the evolutionary psychologists who try to explain all human behavior as rooted in our ape-like past – or even our bacteria-like past. Many evolutionary biologists cannot stomach the ridiculous ideas of evolutionary psychology.

You can’t put humans in a test tube. If the Harvard Law* applies to animal subjects, how much more to human subjects! How can fallible humans look into the minds of other humans and understand what is going on in there? Only God knows the heart.

*Harvard Law: “Under the most rigorously controlled conditions of pressure, temperature, volume, humidity, and other variables, the organism will do as it darn well pleases.”

Our most severe critique of psychology is that it is a replacement for religion, masquerading as science. Allowing for some exceptions, as we said concerning effective memorization techniques and the like, it is predominantly a false religion. It has its own theology, anthropology, and soteriology. It denies sin. It denies a Savior. It denies a Creator. Some secular psychologists even deny the mind and consciousness. Most psychologists have a different god: the BBBB (Big Brother Bearded Buddha, Darwin). Who would want to trust these guys?

To the extent psychology is wrong, it can be dangerously wrong. To the extent it is right, you don’t need it. If you have the Manufacturer’s Handbook, why would you go to sinful humans who deny what the Creator has said about human nature? Why would any Bible-preaching pastor send his sheep to the wolves? Why would any Christian counselor blend Biblical truth with secular lies, creating a mishmash that is oxymoronically called “Christian psychology”? Jesus is the Good Shepherd who loves the sheep and cares for them.

Scientists sometimes analyze things to death. Measuring blood flow in subjects asked artificial questions about their feelings watching “a neutral documentary on small sea creatures” is awful in a way; it takes the awe out of awe. If you want to learn about awe, go out into creation and forget about yourself. Turn your attention to God who made it. Go to a Bible-teaching church and join in song,

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder

Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made;

I see the stars; I hear the rolling thunder,

Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to Thee:

How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

Resource: Get more AWE into your life (Adventure • Worship • Education) with Creation Safaris! Start a group or join a like-minded ministry and “Escape to Reality,” where there is Awe in plenty in the great outdoors. Learn more about this on CreationSafaris.com. Creation Safaris is a sister ministry of Creation-Evolution Headlines, sponsored by Master Plan Association.

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