Through Thick and Thin (Slices)

Reading audiences as an informal educator

No matter how you slice it, the initial moments in an interaction matter. And facilitating social interactions between humans, as well as objects— that’s what we do as museum educators, right? So much of our success hinges on whether we know our audience, and as we have seen from previous posts, you can never know enough! You pack away so much information about your visitors, including tips and tricks on how to apply said knowledge. But in the moment, what actually happens?

Story time!

You can never go wrong with a solid, ambiguous anecdote. Say there was a program at a Science Museum that employed educators to interact with an audience consisting of all ages on a daily basis. These educators had a breadth of knowledge in the scientific concepts relating to the museum (and beyond!), and were constantly trained on how to interact with the public. They would prepare, practice, and shape themselves into the perfect educator for the space. However, when it came time to actually interact in informal ways with visitors, much of what the educators did came down to the few moments at the beginning of the interaction, where they would glean knowledge about the visitor,  and from which they would then quickly dive into their breadth of knowledge and retrieve what they thought would be interesting or pertinent to that specific visitor.

What was that all about?

Phew, that sounds exhausting! Believe it or not, this happens every day both inside and out of the museum world. This technique and psychological methodology is called “thin slicing.” No, it does not refer to a small slice of pie, but instead refers to the brief period of time when a person makes a judgement about someone, a time that often does not seem to rely on critical thinking. Dr. Nalini Ambady, late professor at Stanford, did multiple studies on the art of thin slicing, or snap judgements, starting after seminal research in the 1980s.[1] In one such study, she stated that thin slices, “…are thought to be based on tacit, implicit knowledge that makes verbal explanations and reasoning unnecessary.” [2] From the outside, this method seems like quite a subjective phenomena that should not be used in practice for accuracy. Many that have written extensively about the subject, including author Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, refer to the fact that these snap judgements do not always work. There is also extensive criticism from authors spanning from the Piaget Society to The New York Times that insist that this “high-speed trend” [3] is not a reality, and that accepting and consciously thinking about decisions will bring about more positive consequences. [4]

However, Ambady, Gladwell, and many others have found through scientific and anecdotal research that thin slices can be accurate, and sometimes even predictable in certain situations. [5] From psychologists and therapists [6], art history professionals [7], and even our educators at the aforementioned Science Museum, the “gut feelings,” “intuitions,” “rapid cognitions,” or “thin slices” that are made prove to be accurate useful.

So What?

With all of the critics and it being a fairly new line of inquiry, is thin slicing something we should worry about in museums? The answer: yes! This technique and methodology is already being applied, and so we might as well understand it and use it to our advantage when interacting with all audiences. It may go by other terms, as Dr. Katie Best describes the work of docents doing this same work as “strategy in practice.” [8] Those that are on the front line at museums are the most likely to already be slicing it up, but that does not mean it is not beneficial for those behind the scenes as well— some of us may be training those front line staff, and understanding the thin slice process can make our programs that much more audience-centered. This is not to say that thin slicing should be used without abandon— instead, here are some tips and tricks on how to mindfully thin slice your day away:

  • Educate yourself further on what other decisions people make in this quick moments of rapid cognition— this can help you further understand what thin slices you make yourself.
  • Know that thin slices are based on “‘thick sliced’ long-term study,” [9] meaning that they are taken from large swaths of knowledge (whether you know it or not!)
  • Understand that this thick slice can include implicit bias and stereotypes, [10] so reflect on your own opinions about other people, or take one of the myriad tests from Harvard’s Project Implicit to learn more about how you interact with, and ultimately thin slice, others
  • Attend an improv class! The rules of improv link closely with the methodology of thin slicing, and can make you a better educator and communicator– just as  Jen Oleniczak of The Engaging Educator promotes in NYC!
  • Practice makes perfect! Many of the professionals mentioned in these studies have worked for years on their ability to rapidly intuit in a social interaction. Spend time with the public as much as possible and with your mind wide open to gain the experience necessary to thin slice well (and this is a constantly adaptive process, so do not feel disgruntled if you fail the first few times— try, try again!) [11]

No matter how you slice it…

How you interact with a visitor can make or break the rest of the experience. Is this the only skill necessary to be a museum educator or professional? Not at all, but it can definitely help.

Quick— What do you think?

One thought on “Through Thick and Thin (Slices)

  1. megwilliams44

    This is such an interesting area of research that has the potential to really help us, as educators, understand and bring to the surface the snap judgements that we all make subconsciously all the time.

    I am also interested in the implications for us as museum educators in terms of how our audience perceives us! I have attached the URL to another interesting article about thin-slicing from Harvard University. The professor in this article has been studying the phenomenon by showing students silent 2-second clips of teaching fellows (whom they had never met) and then comparing these students’ impressions of the TFs to the end-of-semester ratings of the same TFs by students who actually took classes with them. They found that the impressions of the first group of students who saw only “thin slices” of TF behavior were surprisingly similar to the impressions of the students who had gotten to know the TFs through the course of the semester. A really interesting quote from the article: ”How expressive a teacher is really matters. It’s what holds a student’s attention and motivates a student to work hard, so it might be directly correlated to student learning…If, on the other hand, a teacher’s style turns a student off, then it’s unlikely the student is going to learn a lot, no matter how well organized a teacher is, or how clear.” Our audience is surely going to be forming these initial impressions of us as they come in to the museum, and the research implies that this snap judgement has the potential to really make or break a learning experience.

    Perhaps training museum educators how to be engaging or charismatic might be the answer, but the professor from the article warns against this type of “coaching.” Another thing that research on thin-slicing shows us is that people usually have very sensitive “radars” for sensing underlying motivations and “fake” behavior. Many of our visitors will probably be very perceptive in their judgements of us and picking up on how we are feeling that day or whether we are making unfair snap judgements of them.

    Of course, we are all going to have our bad days and implicit biases are pretty tough to shake, so maybe bringing more mindfulness into our practice is a good place to start. By being mindful, we can always come back to the reasons we do this work, so that we can truly be genuine, compassionate, and empathetic. That way, we will hopefully not have any trouble coming across as warm, engaging, and charismatic educators.



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