June 28, 2006
Pictures Of Eyes Make People More Honest

People are more likely to make unsupervised cash donations to a box in exchange for tea, coffee, and milk when a poster over the box has a picture of human eyes looking down.

The researchers say the eye pictures were probably influential because the brain naturally reacts to images of faces and eyes. It seems people were subconsciously cooperating with the honesty box when it featured pictures of eyes rather than flowers.

They also say the findings show how people behave differently when they believe they are being watched because they are worried what others will think of them. Being seen to co-operate is a good long-term strategy for individuals because it is likely to mean others will return the gesture when needed.

Details of the experiment, believed to be the first to test how cues of being watched affect people's tendency for social co-operation in a real-life setting, are published today, Wednesday June 28, in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

An honesty box is a system of payment which relies on people's honesty to pay a specified price for goods or services - there is no cashier to check whether they are doing so.

For this experiment, lead researcher Dr Melissa Bateson and her colleagues Drs Daniel Nettle and Gilbert Roberts, of the Evolution and Behaviour Research Group in the School of Biology and Psychology at Newcastle University, made use of a long-running 'honesty box' arrangement.

This had been operating as a way of paying for hot drinks in a common room used by around 48 staff for many years, so users had no reason to suspect an experiment was taking place.

An A5 poster was placed above the honesty box, listing prices of tea, coffee and milk. The poster also featured an image banner across the top, and this alternated each week between different pictures of flowers and images of eyes.

The eye pictures varied in the sex and head orientation but were all chosen so that the eyes were looking directly at the observer.

Each week the research team recorded the total amount of money collected and the volume of milk consumed as this was considered to be the best index available of total drink consumption.

The team then calculated the ratio of money collected to the volume of milk consumed in each week. On average, people paid 2.76 as much for their drinks on the weeks when the poster featured pictures of eyes.

Lead author of the study, Melissa Bateson, a Royal Society research fellow based at Newcastle University, said: "Our brains are programmed to respond to eyes and faces whether we are consciously aware of it or not.

"I was really surprised by how big the effect was as we were expecting it to be quite subtle but the statistics show that the eyes had a strong effect on our tea and coffee drinkers."

Those nations with massive posters of dictators staring down on every street probably have lower crime rates as a result.

This result seems like it has all sorts of obvious immediate results. Parents could put posters of eyes in rooms where their kids might be tempted to misbehave when the parents are not around. Posters of eyes could get put up in bus and train stations to see if the posters deter pick-pockets. Posters of eyes in workplaces might make people less likely to laze off.

One obvious direction for further research would be to try different kinds of faces and facial expressions to see if some faces make people work harder or to treat people more politely on technical support phone calls or otherwise perform better and more honestly in work situations.

Would people in workplaces feel more stressed when eyes in posters look down upon them?

In public places such as town squares, train stations, and airports which have video surveillance cameras (aka CCTVs) would the cameras be more effective in deterring crime if combined with a poster of eyes mounted above them to emphasize to people that they are being watched?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 June 28 08:42 PM  Brain Surveillance

Austin Storm said at June 28, 2006 10:36 PM:

Yeah, and under these pictures of eyes we could put some text. Say, "Big Brother is watching." That could be mighty effective!

Bob Mottram said at June 29, 2006 2:41 AM:

I think charities have known about this effect for a long time. I can think of one particularly exploitative advert which prominently features the crying eyes of a child.

Randall Parker said at June 29, 2006 6:44 PM:


But it doesn't take the existence of a monolithic dictatorship for people to want to use Big Brother tactics. This research shows that Big Brother is useful if one manager or a parent does it.

rsilvetz said at June 29, 2006 10:01 PM:

Would large scale deployment of eyes desensitize to their presence? Probably...

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