Upon commencing a study that requires intercepting visitors on the museum floor, we are often asked by staff (sometimes nervously), “Will people say yes to participating in a survey, interview, etc.?” Our answer is always yes, and we often state that you would be surprised how many agree to participate. Generally about 65 to 80 percent of people that we recruit (in person, at a museum) will say yes to participating in research and evaluation. A podcast I listened to recently from Hidden Brain called “The Influence You Have: Why We Fail to See Our Power Over Others” underscored this from a psychological perspective.
The podcast highlights the research of Vanessa Bohns, a psychologist at Cornell University, who has studied the influence of a stranger over another person. In her studies, Bohns has asked research assistants to make various requests from a stranger (using their phone, money, etc.). In the studies, the research assistants were asked to predict how often people will say yes to their request. Findings reveal that research assistants often underestimated their influence on strangers.
The podcast host Shankar Vedantam summarizes Bohns’ reflections on her studies, which stemmed from her own experience as an anxious student research assistant collecting data in New York City’s Penn Station:
“It felt difficult [making requests of strangers] because she had seen the interaction only from the point of view of her own insecurities. She hadn’t seen the encounters through the point of view of the people she was asking for help. From their perspective, an anxious young woman was asking for something trivial. They had to weigh whether to put aside what they were doing and help her for a few minutes. If they said no, it could make them look like jerks….It’s absolutely true that many of us are influenced by situations, that many of us will do things because the situation prompts it.”
As a researcher and evaluator, this evidence is all quite positive and helps to account for our 65 to 80 percent response rate. But as Vedantam notes, our power of influence comes with responsibility, which I think is particularly true in our COVID-19 world. It is likely that when museums open, people will still agree to participate in studies based on the power of influence. They want to help. So it is up to us as researchers and evaluators to make sure we are inviting them into encounters that are safe for us and them. It is our ethical responsibility to understand and wield our power of influence with care.