When eyes are watching us, we tend to be more honest.

Credit: James Montgomery Flagg,  “I Want You for U.S. Army.” Lithograph, 1917. American Treasures of the Library of Congress.

During the first World War, the US Army launched a now-iconic recruitment campaign: It printed over four million copies of a poster designed by artist James Montgomery Flagg, which depicted Uncle Sam staring and pointing straight ahead. Beneath his stern expression it read “I Want YOU for U.S. Army.”

The campaign was so successful, it was revived for World War II.

Now, nearly 90 years later, researchers from the University of Newcastle in the UK may have discovered why this campaign was such a hit.

According to a paper the team published in the June 28th issue of the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, people behave more ethically when they are being watched—even if it’s by a pair of eyes on a poster.

The authors propose that this subconscious reaction to eyes is an evolved response.

“It’s in our own best interest to know whether we’re being watched by other people, because if we are, then we should behave more altruistically,” said Newcastle biologist Melissa Bateson, the study’s lead author. “If we know we’re not being watched, we can probably get away with behaving more selfishly.”

The researchers were able to conducted their work in their building’s lounge, where hot beverages are distributed using an honor system: When a worker buys a beverage, he or she puts the designated amount of money in an “honesty box.”

Every week, the researchers modified the poster listing drink prices to include a picture that alternated between flowers and eyes. By measuring how much milk was consumed and how much money was in the box, the team concluded that, on average, people paid nearly three times as much for their drinks on the weeks when eyes were watching over them.

“I wouldn’t like to claim that my colleagues were actually being dishonest,” Bateson said. “They were [just] more honest in the weeks with eyes.”

Bateson’s team put a different pair of eyes up every other week, varying both gender and expression. All of the eyes looked directly out at the viewer. While they do not have enough data to do a formal analysis, Bateson said the team noticed that people put more money in the box when the eyes were male than when they were female.

“One of the reasons that we might be sensitive to being watched has to do with the possibility of being punished if you’re caught misbehaving,” she said. “It’s possible people might be more sensitive to the idea of being caught by men than women.”

Bateson said people or organizations trying to influence the behavior of others could utilize the results of her study. For example, if the government wants to deter drivers from speeding or running traffic lights, instead of putting up a picture of a camera to warn potential speeders that they’re being monitored, they could put up a picture of glaring eyes.

“Cameras are a very recent thing in terms of our evolutionary history,” Bateson said. “We certainly don’t have evolved pathways in our brains for processing those pictures.”

Originally published July 18, 2006


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