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Blending Fear and Pleasure: What is Awe and What Causes it?

Has there ever been a time when you experienced something so marvelous and grand that your hair stood on end and you got goose bumps?

You may not have had a name for this feeling, but it’s likely you were experiencing what psychologists call “awe.” Awe comes when we feel overwhelmed by greatness, and when we see something powerful and unbelievable we have never seen before.

According to an article by Keltner and Haidt (2003), “…theorists agree that awe involves being in the presence of something powerful, along with associated feelings of submission…a difficulty in comprehension, along with associated feelings of confusion, surprise, and wonder.”

This may comes from a magnificent scene in nature like the Grand Canyon, a spiritual experience of synchronicity, encountering a truly charismatic leader such as Nelson Mandela, or a wondrous or historic work of architecture.

These type of experiences and encounters humble us and make us feel small in comparison.

Awe can be life changing for this reason, as we are able to perceive the grand scale and wonder of the world. We can look beyond our petty concerns and experience something astonishing and admirable.

Overall, awe is a positive emotional experience, but it’s not always completely positive.

Think of a mighty thunderstorm or natural disaster, or any other phenomenon where you feel weak and frail in comparison. Awe titers on the edge of fear and terror when we experience something much more powerful and colossal than we are used to.

The central features of awe include vastness or something much larger and more powerful than ourselves, and the need to accommodate our current mental understanding of what we are seeing.

Accommodation occurs when we experience something that is so novel or unbelievable we must alter our current mental model to incorporate it and organize it.

Along with vastness and accommodation, awe is flavored by qualities of threat, beauty, ability, virtue, and the supernatural.

From what do you experience awe?

Here are a few examples of what may lead people to experience awe.

Threat – Think of the many natural disasters or storms that devastate the world. We may be intrigued by these phenomenal forces of nature, but probably don’t want to experience them first hand! These type of experiences are awe-inspiring with a tinge of fear.

Beauty – This includes aesthetic beauty from nature or art, as well physical attraction to another person.

Want to experience some awe and inspiration? Visit one of the many wonders of the world.

  • Colosseum
  • Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa
  • Great Wall of China
  • Porcelain Tower of Nanjing
  • Hagia Sophia
  • Leaning Tower of Pisa
  • Taj Mahal
  • Stonehenge

Ability – Awe and inspiration can come when we encounter others we admire and who have exceptional ability. Think of all the world’s leaders, scientists, thinkers, artists, entertainers, and icons. When we see these people in action it can be truly awe-inspiring.

Virtue – Seeing others or a scene that depicts true moral goodness and integrity of character can lead to awe. People that dedicate their life to the service of others and who overcome adversity to make the world a better place give us a sense that people are inherently good and virtuous.

Supernatural – Any spiritual experience related to God, an encounter with aliens, or being in the presence of a spirit or ghost may be included in this experience. When we are in the presence of something mystical and uncanny it can might be alarming or it may be very awe-inspiring.  

We are obviously fascinated by many of these experiences even the ones that verge on fear. These are moments when we are transfixed by something so powerful and out of the ordinary that we are consumed by its beauty, magnificence, and grandeur.


Ketner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17 (2), 297-314.

Blending Fear and Pleasure: What is Awe and What Causes it?

Joe Wilner

Joe Wilner is a life coach, licensed clinical psychotherapist (LCP), and drummer from the band Yes You Are. He is also creator of You Have a Calling, a blog and online community helping people discover and pursue their life’s work and mission. Through deep and personalized coaching, he helps ambitious, creative, and spiritually minded individuals make a greater impact, grow as leaders, and design a soulful life they are inspired by.

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APA Reference
Wilner, J. (2011). Blending Fear and Pleasure: What is Awe and What Causes it?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Nov 2011
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