If people feel they are being watched, they are likely to behave themselves--even if the observer is a paper copy of a pair of eyes.
Behavioral biologist Melissa Bateson of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the United Kingdom is in charge of her psychology department's coffee-and-tea fund. Tired of her colleagues' welshing on the requested donation each time they fill up, she wondered whether the sense of being observed would make them shape up. "According to evolutionary theory, it's in our own best interests to behave nicely when we're being watched," she says. Research also indicates that people will respond to fake cues, such as eyelike spots staring at them from their computer screen. So, Bateson and her coworkers thought they'd try posting a pair of eyes by the coffee-fund donation tin.
Every week for ten weeks, they put up a different picture above the donation instructions: either of eyes or flowers. Then, because most drinkers added milk to their drinks, the researcher tracked milk use as a simple indicator of overall tea and coffee consumption. On average, consumers put almost 3 times as much into the kitty when confronted with a pair of eyes, with results varying according to the eyes: A judgmental male pair, for example, elicited more donations than a flirtatious female sideward glance, they report online today in Biology Letters. "The size of the effect was really quite striking," says Bateson. She suggests using a pair of eyes on security signs instead of pictures of closed circuit cameras.
"It's a great piece of work," says anthropologist Daniel Fessler of the University of California, Los Angeles, who previously showed that fake eyes prompt people to be generous in laboratory games. "This shows that the same thing happens in the real world."