Five Ways Attractions Can Deliver Emotional Experiences

By Jon Young

We’ve conducted scores of focus groups amongst visitors to attractions over the years.  When they tell us their most treasured memories, responses can range from gazing at a Picasso masterpiece to petting Billy the farm goat.  These experiences have very little in common in a literal sense, which makes them difficult to group and categorise.  But each has generated an emotional response, and it is for this reason that they are remembered with such clarity.

The reason emotional experiences are so prominent in visitors’ minds is linked to how we evolved - the ability to remember fear, joy, or sadness increasing our chances of survival.  Our brain is hard-wired to remember these emotions, regardless of the context they occur in.

How attractions can deliver emotion…

We use a range of research methods to understand how attractions can deliver an emotional experience: visitor observations, in-depth interviews, standard exit surveys and more.  We’ve combined what we have learned with some of the latest neuroscience* and come up with five recommendations.

  1. Create the context: Central to the creation of emotion is the brain’s ability to make an accurate prediction of what to expect. So the venue should always try to frame the visit in an accurate context.  If the exhibition is likely to be sad, marketing materials or introductions should reflect that.  Inconsistent framing can lead to cognitive dissonance and avoidance.
  2. Remove anxieties: Visitors tend to report more memorable visits when they are given an introduction at the start of a visit, easing them into the subject matter.  Engagement levels also tend to be higher when physical needs are met, such as  sufficient seating, lighting or the right room temperature.
  3. Categorise where possible: ‘Categories’ provide the brain with a short-cut in understanding, so it doesn’t have to make predictions based on all of the stimulus it is provided with.  The more that attractions use accessible language, the more visitors are likely to connect emotionally with the collections.  The most effective venues provide accessible language at a number of levels – overall, by section and by exhibit.
  4. ‘Relatability’: Attractions are more likely to create emotional moments if they present their collections in ‘relatable’ ways.  Personal stories are an effective gateway to this, as is presenting collections through the lens of modern-day concerns (e.g. terrorism).  Well-known characters, familiar experts and a mix of media also meet this criterion.
  5. Juxtaposition: A common theme from our research is the role of juxtaposition in delivering the emotions of ‘awe’, ‘surprise’ or ‘amusement’.  This could be something that feels out of place - like a dinosaur in an iconic building, or Horrible Histories depicting the Magna Carta. It could be one object giving two very different messages - like the handkerchief used as a map before it was turned into a ballroom gown (at a recent British Library exhibition).

Venues may not always wish to break down their experience so scientifically, but at the very least they may want to ‘think caveman’ and judge the extent to which they are speaking to visitors’ evolutionary hard-wiring.  If they do, then the chances of memorable visits, deeper understanding and higher visitor numbers will be that improved accordingly.

We’ll be following this up with a white paper describing our methodology in more detail.  But for now, we’d love to hear your thoughts.

* Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions are Made

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