The “Eyes” Have It: People Behave Better When They Feel Like They’re Being Watched

a photograph of a person holding binoculars and looking through them, they are facing the camera
Image by Chase Elliott Clark / CC BY

The other evening I was driving home from a class I was teaching, one that ended at about 9:00 at night. Even in the city, typically traffic is very light that time of day. Rush hour is long over, most people have returned from their dinners out, and the bar crowd hasn’t yet decided to turn in.

And for most of the drive, there weren’t too many cars on the road. But as I was coming up on a certain intersection, it was absolutely swamped. There were a number of cars in this particular area, with all of their brake lights lit up.

Well that’s odd, I thought. Has there been some kind of accident?

And then I saw it. Photo enforced speed. A sign warning there was a traffic camera nearby.

Of course. People who had been cruising along at 5 or 10 miles above the posted limit and doing your standard rolling California stop had gone into personal audit mode.

And now the majority of cars were moving at 5 or 10 below the limit and taking great pains to come to a complete stop, dramatically pause, and then go at stop signs.

Because in an instant, each driver had gone from an invisible motorist in a sea of other traffic to now feeling as though they were being watched.

People Behave Better When They Feel Like They’re Being Watched

This phenomenon, whereby people modify their behavior depending on whether or not they feel like they’re being observed, is also known as Hawthorne effect or observer effect. And it isn’t just limited to speed traps. This phenomenon has been found in many other contexts and rather consistently found empirically, showing up in many research studies.

And you don’t even need an actual person there as the observer or even something like a camera to be present.

Instead, people seem to also respond to much more subtle cues, including anything that resembles an eye. Like, a googly eye that you’d get at craft stores.

For example, Bateson, Nettle, and Roberts conducted a study in 2006 where they placed a donation collection box, allowing people who used it to pay for coffee, milk, and tea on an honor system. They posted a notice next to the collection box that listed the suggested prices. The researchers found that people donated three times more to the honor system box when they simply added googly eyes to it that were positioned to look directly at the person using the box. Yup. They stuck up fake eyeballs, and people were significantly more likely to put the correct amount into the box (as compared to the control condition, which had the same price board but instead had neutral images that weren’t eyes).

It’s also worth noting that this experiment’s conditions weren’t as notably artificial as most. Instead, it was conducted in a real world context, participants were unaware that there was a scientific study involved, and they were using their own money to pay on the honor system.

The body of research on this matter is exhaustive but here are a few other example studies in the same vein:

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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