“Whatever you do,” Richard Thaler, the Nobel-winning economist, admonished me, as he walked out of the new Mindworks space at Michigan and Jackson “do not call this a museum. That’s the last thing I want people to think this is.” Thaler, who is on the board of Mindworks’ parent institution, the Center for Decision Research at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, offered the command with a smiling insistence, twice. Mindworks’ non-museum-ness seemed to be something he’d thought about seriously.
The whatever-kind-of place-it-is space is devoted to introducing the public to the insights and methods of Behavioral Science, the field that combines academic economics with psychology and other social sciences to dig deep into how and why we humans make our decisions. Behavioral science also plumbs for insights into cognition more generally, into what makes people happy, and—this is the Booth School after all—why people make the financial choices they do and how to encourage them to make better ones. Mindworks takes on all that, but distills it in ways that entertain. Sometimes geekily. Often with a dose of Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not showmanship and humor. The object on display is ourselves, and how we think, decide and interact with the world. Go with family and friends. You’ll learn things you do and don’t understand about each other that might otherwise require group therapy or, as a divorced friend I took with me noted, marriage counseling.
Chicagoans and tourists to the city have a taste for heady attractions. The city’s fabulously popular architecture tours, science museums, ideas festivals and conceptual art projected on the side of the Merchandise Mart are daily proof. Mindworks may be the new must among brainy attractions.
Located in a prime storefront in the Santa Fe Building, Mindworks is primed to lure visitors who occasionally come downtown to see the Art Institute, The Field, The Shedd and Planetarium. You know…the city’s great museums. For the record, Mindworks is a member of a consortium called Chicago Association of Specialized Museums, which includes some of the city’s finer smaller institutions, such as Intuit and the Museum of Contemporary Photography. What’s more, during Mindworks’ creation, its originators did consult with its peer institutions at the University of Chicago, including the Oriental Institute and the Smart Museum, though Mindworks aims to be far more interactive and less centered on inert objects.
Why might it matter whether Mindworks is a museum or not? And why is Richard Thaler so exercised by the idea that it might be lumped in with museums? Well, it is a particularly apropos question for this space in particular. Mindworks grows out of a discipline that is devoted to understanding the categories we assign to the people, situations and other factors that weigh on our decisions. So when one of the deans of Behavioral Science insists uncategorically that the category of museum does not apply, it has weight. When, from inside a space devoted to thinking carefully, we are implored to think carefully before using the word “museum,” we might pause to think what we’re getting wrong. What does conceiving of Mindworks as a museum mean we miss? What misapprehension is Thaler pushing us to correct? And does getting it right—excluding it from the museum category, whatever that is—mean that the space is more or less able to attract visitors, or perhaps better entice the kind of visitor Mindworks values most?
The Center for Decision Research, with financial support from PIMCO, the investment firm, enlisted one of the world’s top design firms to design a space to deliver the field’s big ideas with visual and tactile exhibits. Phillip Cox, one of the designers on the Pentagram team, said that he and his colleagues digested stacks of academic papers in behavioral science, participated in some research projects and worked to translate consequential findings in ways that would work for a lay visitor coming into Mindworks for the first time. Cox says the space mixes mind games with social experiences that have visitors interacting with others or with staff. The framework for the visitors’ experience, Cox says, is to have them make choices, make guesses, then do an activity (perhaps a questionnaire) and follow it all with a reveal related to current research findings. The result is meant to be playfully clinical.
Put it all together and Mindworks feels like a kind of maker space for decision making. Maker spaces are not museums, though lots of museums now feature them. Architecturally, Mindworks is designed to suggest a lab. Many of the exhibits hang on wall-sized peg boards. White boards abound. Even exhibit copy is delivered on faux white boards. Activities for visitors are conducted in clean, white, cubby-like examination rooms. In the early days following the opening, Mindworks has been abundantly staffed with University of Chicago students in white lab coats. (Hopefully, the space will stay as fully staffed.) Some stand by to explain the exhibits and to answer questions. Others coax visitors into mini experiments that play the dual role. First, the experiments show how behavioral science plumbs decision-making. Second, the experiments allow researchers to collect data from the visitor-participants, who are also the lab subjects.
Some might worry that the space is a kind of honey trap that lures in visitors with the promise to make them smarter and more self-aware, then exploits them as lab rats servicing the University of Chicago’s endless appetites for data. Mild deceit has long been a productive tool in psychological studies, and is still a frequent feature in investigations that happen on campus. Those with long memories may find investigators in lab coats trigger fears rooted in the cruelty of some notorious past studies. The 1961 Milgram Experiment at Yale, for one. Or, the especially wicked episodes at the University of Chicago Hospital in the 1950s and sixties—as alleged in a once high-profile lawsuit by the Cook County Public Guardian—when mental patients who were wards of the State of Illinois were subjected to unauthorized experimental surgeries. The choice of lab coats for staff is puzzling. It’s hard to imagine behavioral science investigators wearing them while at work on campus. And one wonders whether the exhibit designers have seen the Jason Bourne movies, “Stranger Things,” just about any Hollywood movie that features brain science or walked through an amusement park house of horrors. On the scale of welcoming outfits, white lab coats rank down next to killer clown costumes. Boo!
Fear not. We can relax.
“We tend not to use deception [or do anything that would] put visitors in a bad mood,” says Nicholas Epley, the Booth School psychologist and author of “Mindwise,” a highly engaging, story-rich volume that introduces the principles of behavioral science to the general reader. Epley is the current head of Center for Decision Research, and it was on his watch that Mindworks took shape. “What we sell is satisfying curiosity. We’re out to give people an “Aha!” moment.” Epley teaches one of the most popular courses at The Booth School and, as an author, is a practiced popularizer. At the Mindworks opening, he spoke of his passion at spreading his findings of behavioral science. “Our key contribution is wisdom. Everyone is a behavioral scientist in theory; everyone has common sense.” Wisdom, he says, is about figuring out which parts of common sense make you a better decision maker and which get in your way. “As a field we are at our best when we bring those gaps to people’s attention.” It is important, Epley says, that Mindworks has a “pro-social element.” So, he says, “visitors are not charged a fee and hopefully they walk out feeling better.” Perhaps the “fee” is the visitors’ willingness to take part in the research studies conducted on site. Participation does have value and Mindworks acknowledges as much by offering gifts—including books by Epley and Thaler—to those who take part. Research protocols preclude offering cash.
For an older generation of museum goers, Mindworks may harken back to an earlier era of the interactive science museum, before the advent of digital content and computer-aided gamification of exhibits. This is still the mode at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, the early prototype for the interactive museum. Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, once thick with human docents, has been reintroducing more of them to its exhibits lately. Humans at work explaining science, or behavioral science, beat just about any other kinds of interactivity.
As visitors walk into the Mindworks space they are immediately asked to start deciding things, and then to dissect the facts and inclinations that go into those decisions. The very first task is a mini survey with two questions, offered on two different colors of paper disks. The users choose the color. The first asks visitors to write down an act they have recently regretted, and the second question asks for a description of something the visitor regrets not doing. Once completed, the disks are hung in an array on the front window of the space. Then comes the reveal. It’s in the form of a message behind the door. It explains the “experiment.” Most of the activities in the space have reveals. For this one, we are told first why we may have chosen one color disk over another. Colors have consequences on decisions. We also learn that the intensity of the regret over things not done tends to be higher than that over acts we wish we had not done. Why? Because regrets have categories. Those regrets where we know the consequences, i.e. the past acts, are bounded and their consequences fairly well understood and planted in the past, but the others, the regrets for the never-done thing—let our imaginations roam over a whole universe of potential benefits that did not happen as a result of our inaction. This is a University of Chicago space, so of course Mindworks has a website (mindworkschicago.org/regrets) to guide visitors to more information on the science behind the activity.
At every station in Mindworks, visitors are made aware of elements of their decision making. The second station is arguably the space’s most ambitious lesson. It aims to describe “choice architecture.” In behavioral science, choice architecture refers to how choices are presented to the deciders, and also to the environment within which the choices must be made. Thaler explored choice architecture in depth in his popular book “Nudge,” written with Cass Sunstein (now at Harvard). A classic example revolves around workplace savings plans that users must opt out of, instead of opt in for. It’s ostensibly the same decision. Either one is in or one is out of the plan. But when the decision architecture is set so that plans are the default and the employees who don’t want them need to opt out, participation rates are higher than when the default requires users to opt in. Nudges can also be deployed in reverse to discourage users from taking action in their own interest. Thaler calls this sludge. Examples offered at Mindworks are the memberships companies make it hard to cancel, and the add-on services companies urge users to buy when they don’t need them. The activities at Mindworks walk through a few elements of choice architecture that play on us all the time. These include: Are decisions fun? Easy? Do they capture our attention to make us act? How much does the influence of our social circle bear on a decision? And what is the timing of a decision? Making a choice is easier in advance; people more readily sign up to be organ donors if asked when they renew a driver’s license than if they are asked to decide later.
The Choice Architecture exhibit walks visitors through factors that likely weigh on them as they set their personal goals, and asks them to choose what matters most. For example, would one put progress in a career over improving relationships. And then asks what factors might help or hinder achieving those goals, such as lack of time or money. Answers are tallied on a peg board, the result of which is visual proof of the diversity of people’s choice architecture. Out of dozens of responses on the board, no two visitors showed the same choice architecture. It drives home the complexity of the factors that lead us to our decisions.
For those expecting the usual style of copy found in interactive exhibits at kid-friendly museums, the exercise on decision architecture takes some time, and perhaps some head scratching, to decipher. The ideas are distilled, but are well above the kind of explanations meant to be read to children by parents at most science museums. Children can enjoy Mindworks, but this is decidedly a space for teens and adults willing to spend the time grappling with big, new ideas. One bit of magic in the space is that the ideas are so big that the relatively small area of Mindworks feels bigger than it is. At least in that way, it inadvertently simulates a Chicago museum.
Mindworks: The Science of Thinking, 224 South Michigan, chicagobooth.edu/mindworks