Watching Eyes Make Us Honest

Status: Strange experiment
image An experiment described in a recent issue of the journal Biology Letters reveals a simple way to make people behave more honestly: display a picture of watching eyes. Melissa Bateson, a biologist at Newcastle University, conducted the experiment on her colleagues, without their knowledge, using the communal coffee pot in the departmental lounge as the set-up. She found that when she placed a picture of a pair of beady eyes above the coffee pot, contributions to the 'honesty box' (the box in which people are supposed to deposit money to pay for the coffee they've drunk) were three times higher than when she displayed a picture of flowers. Bateson explains that:
The effect may arise from behavioural traits that developed as early humans formed social groups that bolstered their chances of survival. For social groups to work individuals had to co-operate for the good of the group, rather than act selfishly. "There's an argument that if nobody is watching us it is in our interests to behave selfishly. But when we think we're being watched we should behave better, so people see us as co-operative and behave the same way towards us," Dr Bateson said.
In other words, we behave better if we think we're being watched, even if we're only being watched by fake eyes. It could be named the 'Big Brother Is Watching You' effect.


Posted on Wed Jun 28, 2006


Not exactly a groundbreaking experiment. The same result has been yielded with false mounted security cameras.....

.....or the signs that say "This premises guarded by ######## security system".....

This is a new twist on an old system of using falsehoods to encourage conformed behavior.
Posted by EJWise  on  Wed Jun 28, 2006  at  09:57 PM
I agree with you on this one WISE. I can't believe that someone wasted their time on an "experiment" to figure out something the last 10 reality-comedy-hoax shows have displayed as a gag. Not to mention this idea is relatively obvious of human nature. People tend to pick their nose when no ones looking!!!
Posted by You're All Crazy  on  Thu Jun 29, 2006  at  03:20 AM
Surely the point is that even when they know the eyes that are watching them aren't real, they subconsciously behave as though they are.
Perhaps not groundbreaking, but worth having some evidence for?
Posted by Owen  on  Thu Jun 29, 2006  at  05:03 AM
learned behavior...gets you everytime!
Posted by You're All Crazy  on  Thu Jun 29, 2006  at  05:19 AM
So I take it the folks who like shagging in front of security cameras are statistical outliers...
Posted by outeast  on  Thu Jun 29, 2006  at  07:38 AM
This is a variation of the "synopticon" theory popular in the 19th century.
As I understand it, the theory held that delinquents could be permanently reformed just by keeping them under constant surveillance for a period of time.

This is the reason many prisons built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have tiers of cells that can all be watched from a central location. The design probably also involves practical guarding considerations, but it originally was meant to have therapeutic effects as well.

A weak form of this hypothesis seems non-controversial: Almost anybody's less likely to break society's rules when somebody else is watching. Can we really be fooled by a picture of a pair of eyes, though? It's an interesting claim, but I'd say more proof is needed.

As an irrelevant sidebar, I'll note that gardeners often use "scare eyes" (big fake yellow eyes) as a bird deterrent, and and many kinds of fish, butterflies, and other animals have ocelli (big spots resembling eyes) to fool predators.
Posted by Big Gary  on  Tue Jul 04, 2006  at  09:41 AM
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