On December 1st, 2015 we learned about

Images of eyes help us keep watch on our behavior

Your best singing happens when you’re alone in the shower, right? Your best dancing took place when nobody was watching? While there might be gains to drop some inhibitions, your most positive behavior probably takes place when you know someone is watching, or are at least thinking about someone watching. There doesn’t even need to be an actual observer there, as it turns out that even a static image of human eyes looking at you is enough to spur more pro-social behavior. This has been tested in multiple contexts, and each time the presence of artificial peepers seems to be enough to change how we conduct ourselves. No real leverage or subterfuge is needed, since an image of eyes is enough to trigger some fundamental responses in our social brains.

Seeing our social side

While the fundamental idea that we are less selfish when in the presence of others seems obvious, experiments have been refining the mechanisms driving these instincts. It was first ‘discovered’ when participants in economics experiments were found to make decisions more beneficial to the group when an image of disembodied eyes watched them on the computer screen they were using. Real-world experiments supported the notion that seeing eyes made us consider social expectations when acting, such as when people were more honest about paying for communal snacks in a break room when a picture of eyes was watching the room. On college campuses, posters of eyes helped guard bicycles, reducing the theft rate in that area by 62 percent.

The latest iteration of these experiments revealed that the better behavior isn’t because we feel an authority is waiting to catch us break the rules. Two versions of leaflets discussion bicycle security were distributed on a collage campus, with the variable that half included an image of human eyes looking at the reader. After reading it, owners of the eyed version were significantly less likely to litter with the pamphlet. Even without mentioning the concept of littering, the printed eyes seemed to serve as a reminder of social expectations, and that people shouldn’t be tossing their garbage on the ground.

Ogling others’ optics

All this points to the idea that we can’t help but be interested in another person’s gaze, even if it’s hypothetical. It’s been found that our interest in watching eyes is so strong, we’ll even track unusually placed eyes on the limbs of fictional creatures with the same attentiveness as on a human face. In some cases, we’ll look at images of eyes even when told not to. This overriding focus then reminds us of our baseline desire to please our peers, since as a social species we’ve evolved to be very interdependent on each other. We can obviously act in our own self-interest, but that needs to somehow beat out our interest in our community.

My first grader asked: So when my teacher left the room, would fake eyes have kept the kids from breaking the rules today?

In that case, probably not. The pamphlet study only found a difference in people’s behavior when they were alone. If other humans were present, the eyes in the pamphlet seemed to carry little weight in their decision-making. We know the eyes aren’t a real person, but when we’re alone, they remind us to consider other people rather than just default to our immediate self-interest. So in a classroom, if kids start getting out of hand when their teacher steps away, the kids probably feel a motivation to please or impress the peers that are there with them. Those real eyes count for a lot, and a picture on the wall probably wouldn’t do much at all.

Source: How the Illusion of Being Observed Can Make You a Better Person by Sander van der Linden, Scientific American

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