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The role of transcendent nature and awe experiences on positive environmental engagement


Despite a rich popular narrative that awe-inspiring nature experiences promote environmental behavior, empirical work on this subject is lacking. Recent research has determined that individuals often experience the emotion awe in nature, and that this emotion can lead to reliable shifts in cognition, interpersonal perception, and social behavior. In addition, although research has found that nature exposure can shift environmental behavior, the emotional pathways underlying this association, such as awe, are not yet clear. The current investigation explores through two studies the relationship between transcendent nature and awe experiences with environmental behavior. In study 1 (N = 405), a pre-post online survey assessed (1) the effect of describing a past nature-based transcendent experience in a value-based model of environmental behavior; and (2) what qualities of this experience, such as awe, were most prominent descriptively and as predictors in the model. Regression analyses revealed that describing a nature-based transcendent experience significantly improved the model, and increased participant’s openness to change values pre-post. Moreover, a sense of awe was the most prominent experience quality and was positively related to environmental behavior.

Study 2 employed an experimental design to more concretely explore the role of the transcendent emotion awe in nature on environmental behavior and engagement. A 2x3 factorial design (N = 277) explored whether two factors - (1) reading a climate change message or no message, and (2) viewing videos of awe-inspiring nature, an awe-inspiring built environment, or calming nature - influenced participant’s emotional state and environmental behavior intentions, including an in-situ measure of whether they signed a climate change petition presented outside of the building after leaving the lab session. Participants reported feeling less relaxed and interested after reading a climate message in the built (awe) condition compared to the nature conditions. Also, participants in the awe-nature condition reported feeling more relaxed when they were given the climate message to read. Although no significant interactions for environmental behavior intention emerged, for the in-situ measure, participants who viewed nature rather than awe videos were over three times more likely to sign the climate petition.

Overall, the results of study 1 suggest the theoretical value and interventional benefits of integrating transcendent nature experiences and the emotion awe into value-based models of environmental behavior. The results of study 2 begin to suggest that pro-environmental behavior may depend more on the setting participants are exposed to (nature versus built) rather than on the emotions induced by those settings, such as awe. Implications on education and nature protection policy and practices are discussed.

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