Trust on trial in ‘Science of Sharing’ 

click to enlarge The Trust Fountain is part of the Exploratorium’s new "Science of Sharing" exhibit, an array of activities focusing on social behavior such as cooperation. - COURTESY GAYLE LAIRD/EXPLORATORIUM
  • The Trust Fountain is part of the Exploratorium’s new "Science of Sharing" exhibit, an array of activities focusing on social behavior such as cooperation.
"Science of Sharing," a permanent new area of 15 displays and games at the Exploratorium, encourages visitors to study their own behavior.

The Trust Fountain – a two-person drinking fountain in which the stream of water for each participant is controlled by the other – is among the activities in the new section. Project director Hugh McDonald says it is based on a theory called Prisoner's Dilemma, a scenario used to study trust and cooperation in fields including psychology, economics and sports.

Visitors watching people at the Trust Fountain – who may either help their partners drink or spray them in the face – often behave like professional wrestling crowds, egging on the participants.

"People are watching, predicting behavior, responding loudly," McDonald says. "I saw a couple playing the game and when the woman was squirted in the face, she turned to the group around Trust Fountain, saying 'I can't believe he did that, can I get a boo?' and everybody booed."

McDonald, a social psychologist, initiated and coordinated "Science of Sharing" over a two-year period, and helped the Exploratorium receive full funding from the National Science Foundation, to the tune of $2.3 million. The new section, located in the Osher West Gallery, is devoted to experiences that shed light on the interplay between science, society and culture.

Referring to the Exploratorium's focus on the physical, McDonald says, "Social behavior – which is what 'Science of Sharing' is about – is as open to experimentation as are light and color and sound."

At the “Science fo Sharing” entrance is the Give and Take Table, which allows visitors to take and leave items for others ... or not. Typical items may include a pair of sunglasses, and objects sometimes change throughout the day.

Exploratorium Communications Manager Jenny Slafkosky often watches the table from her office, which is right above the section. She says, it’s "very interesting how people stop for a long time and discuss whether to leave something [and] look in their bags to see what they have that would serve the purpose."

An exhibit called Textfish has players use their own cell phones to catch virtual fish. They are given the choice to take all the fish for themselves or to work together to create a sustainable strategy.

McDonald calls the exhibit something he hopes will spark dinner conversations at home, and prompt visitors to think about and discuss their own behavior and that of others.

The National Science Foundation, McDonald and his fellow scholars are using the exhibits to learn more about sharing, competition and cooperation, in the hope they will "improve people's lives if they learned more about these aspects of human behavior."


Science of Sharing

Where: Exploratorium, Pier 15, S.F.

When: 10 to 5 p.m. daily (except closed Mondays) and 6 to 10 p.m. Thursdays for ages 18 and older

Tickets: $19 to $29

Contact: (415) 528-4444,

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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