How to protect your eyes

Watching eyes promote giving

Research suggests that people behave more ethically and give more when there are eyes watching them – or an image of eyes glaring at them.

Remember the scene from F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby involving the giant billboard with the pair of eyes? The billboard is an advertisement for Dr TJ Eckleburg, an optometrist in Queensborough, and it stands over a garbage dump against a dark, gloomy background. Symbolically, it represents the growth of commercialism and a quiet observer of the greed of material wealth.

Research titled Effects of Watching Eyes and Norm Cues on Charitable Giving in a Surreptious Behavioral Experiment, documented in Evolutionary Biology (2014 -12.5) and conducted by the Centre for Behaviour and Evolution and the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University in the UK, was a series of studies by multiple groups of researchers. In a controlled setting, researchers displayed images of eyes when volunteers were alone. First, the volunteers were given a computer-based questionnaire on pro-social behaviour. The real experiment, however, happened after the questionnaire and the volunteers did not know about it. The participants were paid after the questionnaire in coins. A charity donation jar was clearly visible in the laboratory, with 45 coins already in the jar. The cue was that the donations were small, ranging from 10 cents to 20 cents. Posters in the room changed – sometimes watchful eyes and sometimes flowers. These posters had nothing to do with the original questionnaire.

Researchers think that images of eyes indicate social scrutiny, which is why people may be more inclined towards cooperative behaviour – and even generosity.

The study wanted to observe the behaviour of people when “eyes are watching you”. Do people give more when eyes are watching? How do people behave? Researchers found that eye images significantly increased average donations. Eye images did not make people conform more closely to the apparent overall norm but, instead, there were different patterns of behaviour. Eye images made many volunteers more generous than the norm.

The researchers think the eyes made people more pro-social without consciously realising their behaviour. They conducted a similar study in a cafeteria and found that people were more likely to clean up after themselves when there were posters of eyes. The more realistic the eyes, the better. But even pictures of animals with large eyes looking at them had an impact on people’s behaviour.

Another experiment conducted in India in 2012 – in a cafeteria – also had an image of watchful eyes. In the canteen, people did not have to pay cash at a counter. Instead, there was a box nearby to drop the money in. On the box was an image of a lotus flower. Often, regular customers wouldn’t drop money into the box. Then someone replaced the image of the lotus with a pair of eyes. People regularly paid. Was it out of guilt or because psychologically they felt that eyes were watching them?

Researchers think that images of eyes indicate social scrutiny, which is why people may be more inclined towards cooperative behaviour – and even generosity.

Martina Nicolls

Martina Nicolls

Martina Nicolls specialises in human rights, peace and reconciliation, disaster relief, and aid development, primarily in developing countries, states in transition, and conflict zones. She is the author of four books: The Sudan Curse, Kashmir on a Knife-Edge, Bardot’s Comet and Liberia’s Deadest Ends.

You May Also Like

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 04 24t110216.057

What to eat for balanced emotions

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 04 17t143950.232

Inside the spirituality database

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 04 26t150353.669

The Positive Power of Pets

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 (2)

Soothing Inflamed Brains