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Keep an Eye on Bad Behavior

Person's hand grabbing a cookie
Problem Area: 

Problem

People misbehave when no one is looking. 

Solution

People behave better when they feel they’re being watched. 

Details

The University of Newcastle’s Division of Psychology set up a system for its members to pay for tea and coffee by dropping money in an “honesty box.” Psychologists Melissa Bateson, Danielle Nettle, and Gilbert Roberts wanted to test the honesty of their colleagues.

The researchers listed the drink prices on the wall above the honesty box. A picture at the top of the list alternated from week to week. Some weeks, the price list featured a visual reminder of someone watching—a pair of eyes. Other weeks, the researchers posted a picture of flowers.

Each week, the researchers counted the money in the box. After 10 weeks, they found that people paid almost three times as much for their drinks on weeks when the price list included a picture of eyes.

Why This Works

People want to be do-gooders, but without accountability good habits can lapse. Subtle cues of being watched encourage people to act with integrity—in this case, seeing a pair of eyes prompted employees to pay up! 

When This Works Best

The diverse jury didn’t outperform the all-white jury just because of Black jurors’ contributions—jury diversity helped both Black and White jurors. White jurors in the diverse group condition exchanged more information and considered a broader range of facts before coming to a decision than did White jurors in the all-white condition.

The Original Study

Bateson, M., Nettle, D., & Roberts, G. (2006). Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world settingBiology Letters2(3), 412-414.

Credits

Text by Sarah Lyons-Padilla

Photo by Maxwell Philp