Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Oct 31, 2016

Can Images of Watching Eyes Increase Generosity?

by Stefanie Northover
Feature Image

By Stefanie Northover

People who know they are being watched behave differently than those not being watched (e.g., Aiello & Svec, 1993; Bond & Titus, 1983; Latané, 1981; Putz, 1975; Risko & Kingstone, 2011; Triplett, 1898; Zajonc, 1965).  For example, they are more generous (Kurzban, 2001; Satow, 1975) and more helpful (van Rompay, Vonk, & Fransen, 2009).  It has been hypothesized that this tendency is so deeply ingrained that even artificial cues of being watched impact behavior.  In a recent paper, I teamed up with Dr. William Pedersen, Dr. Adam Cohen, and Dr. Paul Andrews to systematically investigate the literature on surveillance cues using a technique called meta-analysis.  This allowed us to draw broad (if tentative) conclusions about the state of the literature.

The last decade has witnessed the introduction and development of a literature which seemingly supports this idea: Anonymous individuals shown mere images of watching eyes (or similarly artificial surveillance cues) behave more commendably, as if they are being watched by real people.  Exposing people to cues of being watched has ostensibly resulted in several desirable outcomes, such as increased generosity (e.g., Pfattheicher, 2015), reduced littering (e.g., Bateson et al., 2015), and increased voter turnout to an election (e.g., Panagopoulos, 2015). 

However, several studies have failed to replicate this surveillance cue effect.  Furthermore, significant results are often conditional on the methods of data analysis, participant or surveillance cue traits, or specific features of the environment.  A review of the literature reveals several qualifications, each only found in one or a few studies.  These include the findings that artificial surveillance cues affect the behavior of men, but not women (Rigdon, Ishii, Watabe, & Kitayama, 2009); that surveillance cues affect the way participants treat members of their group, but not the way they treat outsiders (Mifune, Hashimoto, & Yamagishi, 2010); that surveillance cues only affect participants who are high in chronic public self-awareness (Pfattheicher & Keller, 2015) or not angry (Horita & Takezawa, 2014); and that surveillance cues only work when they are shown briefly (Sparks & Barclay, 2013), or when the number of people in an area is low (Ekström, 2012) or, conversely, high (Bateson, Callow, Holmes, Redmond Roche, & Nettle, 2013).  While conditional effects are often illuminating, it is a cause for concern that the conditions on which surveillance cue effects seemingly depend differ from study to study.

The literature thus presents a mixed picture of artificial observation cues.  Several studies have failed to replicate surveillance cue effects, and many papers report mixed or qualified results.  The conditional surveillance cue effects reported by papers have rarely been replicated.  Therefore, one might wonder how strong the watching eyes effect is, and indeed whether or not it even exists.  My co-authors and I decided to conduct a meta-analysis, which is a combination of results from multiple studies of a given effect.  A meta-analysis can produce a more reliable and precise estimate of the true size of an effect than a single study can.

We decided to focus on generosity, the most frequently investigated outcome in surveillance cue studies.  Most of the generosity studies can be described as either charity donation or dictator game studies.  In a typical charity donation study, subjects are given money as payment for their participation and then asked if they would like to donate some or all of their money to a charity.  In a dictator game study, participants are assigned to groups of two.  One participant in each pair, the dictator, receives money and decides how to allocate it among him/herself and the second participant.  The second participant merely accepts what the dictator offers, if the dictator offers anything at all.

We were interested in whether participants who were shown surveillance cues were more generous than participants who were not shown surveillance cues.  Generosity was measured in two different ways: the amount of money that participants gave (‘amount given’), and the proportion of participants who gave something, rather than nothing (‘proportion who gave’).  We conducted two separate meta-analyses, one for both measurements of generosity.  The ‘amount given’ meta-analysis included data from 2,732 participants from 26 experiments, and the ‘proportion who gave’ meta-analysis included data from 19,512 participants from 27 experiments.

According to both meta-analyses, the generosity of participants who were shown surveillance cues was not significantly different from the generosity shown by participants who were not shown surveillance cues.  In other words, our meta-analyses found no evidence that artificial cues of being watched increase generosity, either by increasing how generous individuals are or by increasing the probability that individuals will show any generosity at all.  One important limitation of our study is that our meta-analyses did not take into account any of the qualifications described previously.  The importance of qualifications is therefore still an open question.  Confidence in conditional effects, as with any effect, should be apportioned to their ability to be replicated repeatedly with large samples.  Our meta-analyses aren’t the final word on surveillance cues and generosity, but they show that skepticism is warranted.

Stefanie Northover is a PhD student in social psychology at Arizona State University.  She is interested in the psychology of religion from evolutionary and cultural perspectives.

Original Article

Northover, S. B., Pedersen, W. C., Cohen, A. B., & Andrews, P. W. (in press). Artificial surveillance cues do not increase generosity: two meta-analyses. Evolution and Human Behavior.


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