Have you ever witnessed a celestial event so awesome that it made you a better person? It probably seems like a silly question, but a study published in Psychological Science suggests that there are measurable social effects of these events; specifically, people inside of the path of a solar eclipse were less self-centered and more pro-social than those outside of the path.
Outer space has been a human fascination for centuries and continues to be one to this day. From meteor showers to eclipses to blood moons, when there is a significant celestial event coming up, hordes of people are happy to observe and marvel at its beauty.
These events can turn into a significant, collective experience, where many people stop and experience something at once. This collectivist experience prompted researchers to want to learn more about social effects surrounding these events. This study sought to measure group functioning, awe, and self vs group focus following the 2017 North American solar eclipse.
Sean P. Goldy and colleagues utilized Twitter data from 2,891,611 users throughout two studies for this research. Study 1 used data from tweets sent between August 17th and August 23rd of 2017 that included keywords about the eclipse. Researchers determined whether or not the tweeters were within the geographic zone of the eclipse’s path. The language of the tweet was coded to capture prosociality, humility, self/collective focus, and awe.
For Study 2, Goldy and colleagues expanded on their previous study by examining Twitter data before, during, and after the eclipse for people in three major metropolitan areas in the path of the eclipse. Study 2 looked for trends in expressions of awe.
Results showed that prosociality and awe increased for people within the path of the solar eclipse. Study 1 showed that awe words increased for people in the zone of the eclipse relative to outside of it, while Study 2 showed that the use of awe words increased during the eclipse as opposed to before and after for the same sample.
Additionally, Study 1 showed increased prosociality for individuals in the path of the eclipse. These individuals showed more prosocial, affiliative, and collective language in their tweets, and used more tentative language, suggesting humility. Study 2 expanded on these results by showing that the same qualities of prosociality, collectivism, and humility were increased during the eclipse for the same sample as opposed to before and after.
“These findings indicate that awe-inspiring astronomical events such as a total solar eclipse can arouse tendencies — from greater attention to one’s groups to motivations to care for and affiliate with others — vital to collective life,” the researchers said.
This study took strides into understanding how an awe-inspiring event can increase prosocial and collective qualities. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that using Twitter data can make the sample not representative of the US population, as frequent social media tends to skew younger. Additionally, while filtering for awe-inspired statements, it is likely researchers missed non-traditionally worded statements of awe.
“Notwithstanding these limitations, our findings provide a direct glimpse into the psychological impact of the 2017 solar eclipse: It was associated with increases in awe and social tendencies that help bind people to others and their groups,” the researchers concluded. “These findings shed light on the social impacts of celestial phenomena and expand the emerging science of awe into large-scale collective contexts. Just as the moon aligned with the sun up in the heavens, people down on earth aligned with each other in awe of this spectacular celestial event.”
The study, “The Social Effects of an Awesome Solar Eclipse“, was authored by Sean P. Goldy, Nickolas M. Jones, and Paul K. Piff.