In Search of Awe

U505 submarine (image courtesy of the Museum of Science and Industry)

Kimberly Quinn wants to know what makes your eyes pop out, and she’s got the gear to do it.

Quinn and her collaborators have spent the past two years persuading visitors to the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI), the Lincoln Park Zoo and other area institutions to spend the day wearing special glasses that record their eye movements. Their research is revealing how people experience awe and what cultural institutions can do to enhance that reaction. Quinn is leading the project along with former psychology faculty member Sheila Krogh-Jespersen and Aaron Price, MSI’s director of research and evaluation.

“When people feel awe, they report feeling like they are very small in a very vast world. There’s a sense of humility,” says Quinn, associate professor of psychological science. Awe and humility correlate with positive
behaviors such as helpfulness and generosity, which are important to cultural institutions. “The zoo, for example, is interested in how awe relates to conservation behavior, donations, interest in the environment and
interest in animal welfare.”

The researchers also are investigating the relationship between awe and learning, adds Price. “If we can show a relationship, that’s a strong justification for school field trips” and other outreach programs, he says.

Students recruit volunteers for the eye-tracking study.

Eye-tracking technology provides insights that surveys can’t. “As a social psychologist, I know that people don’t always have insight into what causes their reactions,” Quinn says. “Eye tracking is giving us data
that participants can’t tell us about.”

And that’s what exhibit designers are eager to know, Price says. “When we are developing new exhibits, we want to make sure that the awe moments happen at the right time to facilitate learning. Should it be at the beginning, the end, the middle?”

The team’s data show that the more time visitors spend looking at MSI’s famed U505 submarine, the more awe they feel. Visitors also feel increased awe when they know more about World War II history and military
technology. However, awe was lower when visitors spent proportionally less time looking at the U-boat than at other aspects of the exhibit. Quinn thinks the information in the museum’s long corridor leading to the U505 prepares visitors to be awed, and other signage might be distracting.

Such insights have drawn standing-room-only crowds when the team presents at museum and learning science conferences. Now Quinn and Price want to collect more data and look for demographic differences
among visitors. Says Price, “What is awe-inspiring to one might not be awe-inspiring— or even fearful—to another. We want programming that includes everyone.”

The end goal is a content coding system for museums and cultural institutions, Quinn says. “We are looking for common themes and features that resonate with guests across exhibits. Museums could use that information to improve scientific literacy by improving engagement.”


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