VR-induced Awe: Can entertainment content also induce awe?

This article is derived from our research recently published in Computers and Human Behavior. For a more detailed account of our research, you can find our full article here.

Still from Travis Scott Fortnite concert. In the foreground, there are two video game avatars dancing to the music, with a further two avatars dancing on a building in the middle ground. In the background to the right there is a very large cartoon version of Travis Scott with his arms in the air rapping. To his right there is a trippy, translucent sphere with a rollercoaster and carnival tents on its surface
Still from Travis Scott Fortnite concert. Accessed via Travis Scott YouTube channel
Awe, emotion, and virtual reality

Growing empirical evidence has implicitly shown that virtual reality (VR) is an effective means to provide various virtual environments that depict natural or artificial environments for users to restore their psychological energy, recover from their negative mood, or to elicit extremely positive moods such as awe. Awe is a response triggered by stimuli that are perceived as vast, prompting a requirement for need for accommodation (e.g., cognitive adjustment). Primarily a positive emotion of self-transcendence, awe has been demonstrated to enhance individual well-being and foster prosocial behaviors (Bai et al., 2017; Yaden, Haidt, Hood, Vago, & Newberg, 2017).

Awe arises from diverse stimuli, from breathtaking landscapes to extraordinary human abilities, evoking amazement and wonder. Keltner and Haidt (2003) identify five themes shaping awe experiences: threat, beauty, ability, virtue, and supernatural encounters

Threats and dangers, such as natural disasters or human atrocities, evoke awe through fear (Gorden et al., 2017). Beautiful scenes, like majestic mountains or views of Earth from space, provoke awe by inducing a sense of smallness and requiring mental accommodation. Mental accommodation refers to the adjustment of an individual’s cognitive approach to understand and process information(Shiota et al., 2007; Schaffer et al., 2023). Witnessing exceptional abilities can also trigger awe, as seen in extraordinary performances, prompting admiration or a need for mental accommodation (Graziosi & Yaden, 2021; Keltner & Haidt, 2003).

Virtue, displayed through acts of nobility or kindness, elicits awe by elevating experiences to moral beauty and inspiring personal growth (Graziosi & Yaden, 2021). Supernatural awe, traditionally linked to spiritual or divine experiences, involves encounters with unimaginable phenomena, challenging existing mental schemas and prompting accommodation (Hendricks, 2018; Angyal, 1941). Such experiences broaden perspectives and transform self-concepts (Preston & Shin, 2017).

While supernatural-based awe is challenging to study in the real world, mediated technologies like digital games and VR offer alternative avenues for experiencing awe. Through various stimuli and immersive experiences, these technologies facilitate encounters with awe, enriching human understanding and exploration of this complex emotion.

Among communication technologies, VR offers numerous opportunities for creating awe-inspiring experiences by expanding individuals’ sensory perceptions within simulated environments. VR uniquely allows users to encounter supernatural phenomena beyond the constraints of reality. Many VR experiences integrate supernatural elements, such as the virtual concert in Fortnite featuring Travis Scott, where users interact with the singer’s giant avatar across diverse environments. These VR scenarios immerse users in impossible settings such as flying in the space or dance with mesmerizing colorful lines, fostering a sense of awe and promoting self-transcendence through the emotional experience.

Can a supernatural VR concert elicit awe?

In this article, we chose the Travis Scott VR concert as the “supernatural” stimuli for awe. We defined supernatural as something that is not possible to be done in the actual real world. In this Fornite concert, gamers control their avatars and engage in this “astronomical” concert through swimming in the deep ocean, dancing together with meteor shower and several other surreal settings with a giant Travis Scott rapping, dancing, and teleporting everywhere.

We designed the study as a three-conditional one-factor experiment to compare this supernatural stimuli with two other conditions: beauty/nature awe (e.g., operationalized as looking at earth from a spaceship) and the control group (actual concert from Travis Scott). Between the supernatural and the control group, the songs and the sequence are the same. We first are curious about how these three different types of VR content affect audiences’ emotion and audience responses. We also hypothesize that supernatural and beauty awe content will lead to greater vastness (i.e., diminished self) and greater need for accommodation, which further lead to prosocial intention (i.e., want to be more friendly and help others). Furthermore, we also hypothesize that in addition to prosocial intention as the positive outcome, self-improvement (i.e., want to improve self) will be another focal outcome because of the diminished self and cognitive adjustment.

Figure 1. Conceptual model of the current research.

A flowchart representing the article’s research questions and hypothesis. On the far left there is a box with ‘type of awe: control/natural/supernatural’ with 6 arrows coming off it, representing the two core research questions and first four hypotheses of the research paper. The arrow for research question one points towards the text box ‘affect and arousal’. The arrow for research question two points towards the text box ‘audience responses’. The arrow for hypothesis one points towards the text box ‘need for accommodation’. The arrow for hypothesis two points towards the text box ‘vastness’. The arrow for hypothesis three points towards the text box ‘self-improvement intentions’. The arrow for hypothesis four points towards the text box ‘prosocial intentions. There are two further hypotheses represented by four arrows. The arrow for hypothesis 5a goes from the text box ‘vastness’ to ‘prosocial intentions’ and 5b goes from ‘vastness’ to ;self-improvement intentions’. The arrow for hypothesis 6a goes form the text box ‘need for accommodation’ to ‘prosocial intentions’, and 6b goes from ‘need from accommodation’ to ‘self-improvement intentions’.

One hundred and twenty-five university students attended this experiment and were randomly assigned to one of the three conditions (supernatural-based awe content vs. natural/beauty-based awe content vs. neutral concert content).

The results showed that the hypotheses regarding the direct effects of awe on prosocial and self-improvement intentions were not supported. Yet, indirect effects through the sense of vastness were observed, suggesting that both supernatural and natural/beauty awe experiences could enhance prosocial intentions and self-improvement via perceptions of vastness.

“Further analyses revealed significant differences in audience affect, arousal, enjoyment, appreciation and suspense across the awe conditions”

Further analyses revealed significant differences in audience affect, arousal, enjoyment, appreciation, and suspense across the awe conditions. Notably, natural/beauty awe elicited more positive affect and appreciation, while supernatural awe resulted in greater enjoyment, arousal, and suspense. However, the need for accommodation, theorized to be higher in supernatural awe, did not significantly differ between conditions, potentially due to participants’ familiarity with virtual environments and limited movement in the stimulus.

The study also explored the role of awe in promoting self-improvement, finding support for the hypothesis that awe can motivate individuals to enhance themselves. This suggests that experiences of vastness in awe-inducing content may stimulate self-improvement by broadening cognitive perspectives. Overall, the findings contribute to understanding the complex effects of awe experiences, particularly in virtual reality environments, and highlight avenues for future research to explore moderating factors influencing behavioral outcomes.


We successfully manipulated ‘supernatural’ awe stimuli through the surreal VR concert in Fortnite. You might wonder why we didn’t choose Ariana Grande’s VR concert in Fortnite. If you were to explore her VR concert, you’d notice surreal settings like riding a unicorn and flying together in the sky or floating in colorful bubbles, which are undeniably beautiful. To avoid incorporating ‘beauty’ stimuli, Travis Scott’s VR concert was a more suitable choice.

Moreover, we successfully introduced self-improvement as an additional positive outcome of the awe emotion, alongside prosocial intentions. This represents an incremental contribution to awe literature, which typically focuses on prosocial intentions as the primary outcome in existing theoretical developments. Future studies can delve deeper into various mechanisms leading to different positive outcomes.

In conclusion, entertaining content such as a surreal VR concert can induce awe, with effects similar to awe elicited by natural or beauty stimuli. VR-induced emotions offer an innovative approach for interventions in work fatigue or recovery, and serve as effective tools for researchers to explore human emotions beyond imagination.


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Recommended citation

Lin, T. (May, 2024) VR-induced awe: Can entertainment content also induce awe?. Critical Augmented and Virtual Reality Researchers Network (CAVRN). https://cavrn.org/vr-induced-awe-can-entertainment-content-also-induce-awe/

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