How the science of awe applies to consumer experiences

Data generated in a recent study of Cirque to Soleil audiences sheds light on what happens when people experience big moments in group settings.

CirqueduSoleil-1By Kat Shermack

It’s long been an idea held fast by filmmakers, distributors and exhibitors alike: people like experiencing big moments in group settings. It’s a belief that fuels creativity and business alike, sitting at the core of film festivals, theatrical chains and the creative ideas that fill them.

However, there’s been little research on whether or not that is true from a neurological perspective – whether the human brain responds to the stimulus of an “awesome” live experience in a measureable way.

“Only recently have people studied awe from a neurological perspective,” said Dr. Beau Lotto, lead neuroscientist at Lab of Misfits, a New York-based experiential research lab focusing on the science of experience.

Lotto was the lead researcher on a recent study commissioned by Cirque du Soleil, which examined how feelings of awe affect audiences. Cirque “was also interested in the role emotions play in driving people to disproportionately seek communal experience,” according to the report.

And while “awe” is clearly a core mission of Cirque, both it and exhibitors rely on creating those moments to fill seats, meet audience expectations and create buzz.

“Awe begins with surprise,” Lotto told Playback via phone from New York. “It’s different from what you expect. But it doesn’t end there. Then you have the sense of, ‘I want to know why.’”

Over the course of 10 performances, 280 audience members of Cirque du Soleil’s “O” in Las Vegas participated in the study, some wearing EEG brain caps that recorded neural responses during “awe moments” of the show. All participants were also asked questions before and after the show.

The data revealed that experiencing awe creates a desire to learn more, ask questions, and lean into new experiences. It also found that it increases people’s tolerance to risk, can prompt behavioral change, inspire feelings of bliss, and lead to increased creativity.

“The power of the experiment transcends Cirque du Soleil,” Lotto noted. “It could be manifested in other ways. Could it happen in film? Possibly. Laughter and positive emotions are known to be contagious.”

Moyra Rodger, founder and CEO of Vancouver-based marketing agency Magnify Digital explains that when it comes to film and television marketing, this is not a new concept. However, she said data such as this could be of use in the marketing of screen entertainment.

“At the root, we’re talking about emotional marketing. Higher emotional responses create greater effects,” Rodger says.

It may be possible for filmmakers and producers to take advantage of these emotions by emphasizing film’s potential to inspire, teach and motivate an audience, she noted. According to Google’s Consumer Barometer, she said, 27% of Canadian content is co-viewed, and this will only increase as the technology improves.

“Certain types of content lend themselves to shared experience,” says Rodger. “When you experience awe there’s openness to feeling connected to those around you.”

with files from Katie Bailey