Going Off Script: Effects of Awe on Memory for Script-Typical and -Irrelevant Narrative Detail

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People often filter their experience of new events through knowledge they already have; for example, encoding new events by relying on prototypical event “scripts” at the expense of actual details. Previous research suggests that positive affect often increases this tendency. Three studies assessed whether awe—an emotion elicited by perceived vastness, and thought to promote cognitive accommodation—has the opposite effect, reducing rather than increasing reliance on event scripts. True/false questions on details of a short story about a romantic dinner were used to determine whether awe (a) reduces the tendency to impute script-consistent but false details into memory, and/or (b) promotes memory of unexpected details. Across studies we consistently found support for the first effect; evidence for the second was less consistent. Effects were partially mediated by subjective awe, and independent of other aspects of subjective affect. Results suggest that awe reduces reliance on internal knowledge in processing new events.

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