The Cosmic Perspective: the Effects of Feeling Small in a Vast Universe

Tyson, C. L. (University of Queensland), Hornsey, M. J. (University of Queensland), Barlow, F. K. (University of Queensland)

In comparison to the unfathomably large size of the universe, we humans are very small. Researchers have theorised that feeling small in the context of the universe might be enlightening for some, putting one’s anxieties into perspective. However, for others, this sense of smallness might invoke fear and pose a psychological threat. In the present study (N = 337), we aimed to better understand the mixed effects of feeling small. We did this by exposing people to either a control video or a video that displayed the relative size of the Earth in the context of universe. When exposed to the universe, people felt more awe and smaller than those in the control group. However, the positive or negative consequences of feeling small appeared to be marginally influenced by a person’s self-esteem. In line with previous studies, we found that low (but not high) self-esteem participants experienced more anxiety when exposed to the vastness of the universe. These results encourage further investigation into whether high and low self-esteem people experience a sense of smallness differently.

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Emotion and Individual Differences