Awe       Disgust       Empathy       Fear


Awe has a long history in religious study and practice. However, in the last two decades study of this emotion has become increasingly popular in psychology-focused academic research.

Awe is a self-transcendent emotion that re-writes what an individual thought they knew about the world. A common definition in academic research asserts that experiencing awe creates a need for accommodation – the need to re-evaluate one’s thoughts in light of new information or experiences – and arises from a sense of vastness. Vastness can be perceived physically, as with a grand vista, morally, as with a great leader, or conceptually, as with a complex mathematical equation. Awe can be prompted by both positive and fear-based experiences. For example, the most frequent elicitor of positive awe experiences is the natural environment, whereas fear-based awe is most commonly caused by reverence for individuals with extreme authority. Awe frequently causes physiological reactions of goosebumps and distinct, instinctual facial expressions.

At the SEE Lab, we are researching the positive impacts that awe can have on individuals and their environmental decisions. Recent studies have shown that this emotion can make people feel more connected to others and to the natural environment, experience more gratitude and generosity, and even enhance critical thinking and lessen the desire for materialism. Current data on awe shows the ability for this emotion to generally improve one’s well-being – our lab is exploring how we can expand this research by further examining the importance of experiencing awe and awe’s potential to motivate behavioural change.


Disgust likely originated to help humans avoid becoming sick from ingesting poisonous or contaminated items. Seemingly unique disgust stimuli such as certain foods, body products (e.g. feces), sex, and contact with death, have an underlying commonality. They blur the boundary between humans and animals. A blurred boundary suggests that we humans are just another form of eating, pooping, fornicating, flesh-and-blood creature. This connection disturbs us because if we are only animals, our lives are no more significant and our fragile bodies just as susceptible to death and decay, which is viewed as a natural part of the circle-of-life within the animal kingdom. Expressing disgust toward creatureliness reminders is an emotional protest that allows humans to elevate ourselves above the frailty and fleeting nature associated with the animal world. In this way, disgust is more deeply a psychological mechanism to manage existential anxieties. Exploring the underlying structure and function of disgust and its connection to death fears is important for furthering the uptake of innovative, environmentally desirable technologies and practices hindered by limited social acceptability due to confrontations with the human-animal boundary.

Disgust is an automatic emotional response that can impede innovative practices and technological advancements. For example, water recycling technologies that allow for reusing wastewater (sewage) for drinking and non-drinking applications, e.g. irrigation or toilet flushing. Stigmas associated with such safe, economical, and practical technological innovations can result in unwarranted avoidance behaviour despite any logical sense and significant potential to improve societal and environmental conditions. So while water recycling does not actually pose a physical threat to our wellbeing, disgust is triggered because it has evolved to offer humans protection from psychological threats and contamination of the soul.


Empathy embodies the phrase “put yourself in someone else’s shoes”.

In humans, empathy involves both thinking and feeling. Empathy can help us understand and relate to others. The two main components of empathy are cognitive, understanding what another person is feeling, and affective, experiencing the feelings of others and responding emotionally. It is the ability to recognise how another person is feeling, understand their perspective, and emotionally relate to that person.

Sympathy and compassion are often conflated and confused with empathy, but there are important differences. Empathy creates a feeling of shared experience that is either

positive or negative. In contrast, sympathy is often related to observing a negative experience. Neither empathy nor sympathy require action, but they are possible steps towards compassion.

Empathy can be useful in reducing implicit biases; when we spend more time with diverse groups of people, different from ourselves, we better understand alternate perspectives and can be more empathetic to other people and varying needs. Strengthening our empathy muscles may even reduce inequality among marginalized groups. Perhaps practicing empathy can reduce outgroup derogation observed following mortality reminders.


Fear is one of the seven universal emotions and is triggered by physical, emotional, or psychological threats. Fear can be evoked by an immediate and real threat such as being chased by a wild animal. Chemical reactions in our brains send signals in our body to act and reduce such threats.

But our cognitive capacities also allow us to experience fear-states by recalling past threats or imagining anticipated threats. While fear is an especially useful emotion that “kicks our butts into gear” to keep us safe, it can also elicit undesirable – and sometimes paradoxical – behavioural responses.

At the SEE Lab, we have explored the fear emotion under the threat context of mortality awareness and how responses to the fear of death influence pro-environmental behaviors. Terror Management Theory posits that humans’ ability to anticipate and think about our eventual death combined with our desire for self-preservation triggers feelings of terror (i.e., very intense fear). Extensive research over three-decades have found that there is something unique about the fear of death compared to the fear of pain, rejection, or failing a test etc.