What we all share in common living in a post-postmodern world are the challenge of slowing down and consistency of change looming in the future. Tales of dystopia, zombie series, and apocalyptic sci-fi movies have been popular but a wave of more utopian aspirations also seem to counteract our entropic vision of the future.
Similarly, in the seventies, after a decade marked by political and social unrest, people were trying to make sense of the chaos. This is when many communes came into existence, offering a way of life that hampered the seemingly meaningless world people lived in.
Communes were based on the notion of utopia, a perfect form of communal living and togetherness without pain and suffering. They were the promise of a more fun and hopeful future, and an escape from the doom and gloom. Surely, we crave that optimism again. There are strong parallels with current cultural trends designed to provide intentional, collective experiences, and momentary, joyful escapes.
We’re witnessing the proliferation of fun pop-up museums, sometimes criticized by the art world for the shallowness of their themes (e.g. Ice-Cream Museum, 29Rooms, Color Factory, etc.). Excessively marketed on Instagram (the epitome of perfected visions), the rise of multi-day festivals is yet another indication of people’s inclination towards escapism. In 2017, 32 million people attended festivals in the US alone according to Nielsen.
Most of these ephemeral and intangible experiences cost significant amounts of money. Still, they galvanize crowds drawing extensive planning, organization, and efforts for those attending to reach the peak of their experience. Turns out the motivation isn’t as superficial as it may seem.
Perhaps it’s the momentary escape from reality and the burden of responsibility. People feel like kids once again, even if fleetingly. They let go of control, feel nurtured by a sense of community, belonging to something bigger than themselves. It can be liberating, even transformational, and helps put things in perspective. This is, in essence, what Awe feels like.
Awe prepares us for change
Awe is a powerful emotion produced by the combination of surprise and fear. Dacher Keltner, Co-Director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and the leading scholar on the psychology of Awe, describes Awe as the “ultimate collective emotion,” and explains that “Awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.”
Awe quiets the voice of self-interest making us more cooperative towards others, he explains. Dr. Keltner’s studies have also shown people’s propensity to be more financially generous after being awestruck. Awe generally leads to more pro-social behavior, more ethical decision-making, and contributes to our ability to experience change more readily by revising our known frames of reference. That’s because Awe involves a sense of uncertainty that we are compelled to try to resolve. This compulsion makes us more receptive to new information, experiences, and meaning says Lani Shiota, Professor of psychology at Arizona State University.
Newness is a sign of our time, but rapid transformations also lead us to feel more time and Awe-deprived. The notion of time is very embedded in the experience of awe. In a series of experiments, scientists at Stanford university showed that participants who felt Awe, relative to other emotions, felt they had more time available. According to the study, altering time perception, feeling awe led participants to more strongly desire […] partaking in experiential goods over material ones.
Awe-some brands focus on Human Experience
This fundamental need may have driven the emergence of what experts have coined the "experience economy," in which functional, material things don’t matter as much as intangible, more emotional experiences. The popularity of Instagram is enough to prove this point as a vehicle showcasing a new form of status.
Everyone is effectively a micro-influencer. And people are more likely to share awesome experiences than they are to brag about functional aspects of a product. Social media channels have basically led people to behave like personal brands. As such, consumption becomes a matter of identity and people are aligning themselves with specific values, beliefs, purposes bigger than themselves. Brands have the unique ability to trigger Awe by creating a collective sense of purpose both internally and externally.
This shift in priority requires a change in the way we do business, from the inside out. The line is becoming blurred between employees, stakeholders, and customers. This is why brand personality, product design, company culture – elements that were maybe more traditionally considered internal – need to be outwardly focused and humanized.
Brands should position themselves through the prism of individuals’ lives to better understand what purpose they truly serve. Awe-some brands know how to bring people along. It takes research to look at Human Experience (HX) outside the brand blinders of an organization, within collective cultural contexts, individuals’ emotional ones, and it takes consistent engagement to help anticipate the disruption companies bring into the world.
If disruption is now the norm, shouldn't we aspire to create more Awe-triggering brands, products, and organizations?
The Rise of the Made-for-Instagram Museum Arielle Pardes - https://www.wired.com/story/selfie-factories-instagram-museum/
For Music Fans, the Summer is All a Stage http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2015/for-music-fans-the-summer-is-all-a-stage.html
Opinion | Why Do We Experience Awe? Paul Keltner - https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/24/opinion/sunday/why-do-we-experience-awe.html
Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion Dacher Keltner-Jonathan Haidt - Cognition & Emotion - 2003
Awe, Uncertainty, and Agency Detection Piercarlo Valdesolo-Jesse Graham - Psychological Science - 2013
How Awe Transforms the Body and Mind https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/video/item/how_awe_transforms_the_body_and_mind
Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being Melanie Rudd-Kathleen Vohs-Jennifer Aaker - Psychological Science - 2012
Just do it: the experience economy and how we turned our backs on 'stuff' Simon Usborne - https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/may/13/just-do-it-the-experience-economy-and-how-we-turned-our-backs-on-stuff
Magali Charmot is the Founding Principal of KULT, an Experience Research + Strategy Consultancy she started to help foster purposeful and awe-inspiring brand, products, and organizations. You can contact her directly for speaking engagements and consulting projects: Magali@kulthx.com