How Big Brother keeps us honest

Even selfish people can act selflessly when their reputation is on the line. Now, a simple experiment reveals just how honest people become when they feel that Big Brother is watching them.

The wallet problem - would you take it if you thought someone was watching?Imagine that you’re walking along a quiet street and you see a wallet lying on the pavement. Would you take it? Now imagine the same situation with a small difference – the wallet has a red circle drawn around it. While many people would be tempted in the first scenario, almost no one would touch the wallet in the second.

The key difference is that the lone wallet was most likely dropped accidentally by a passer-by. But the encircled wallet was clearly placed and marked by someone, who may well still be watching. And there is nothing that keeps people more honest than the presence of a watchman.

Explaining honesty

Social experiments like these are of great interest to biologists because they tell us more about the nature of selfishness and altruism. In recent years, selfishness has become something of a biological buzzword and many influential writers have cast living things as self-serving vessels acting for the benefit of their genes. In this harsh light, individuals co-operate with each other only if they reap a personal reward.

But some acts of altruism, particularly human ones, are harder to explain. We are often kind and generous to others, even if they are unrelated (and so share no genes) or are unlikely to ever repay the good deed. Is this true selflessness, or is there something else going on?

Image is everything

One theory is that such selfless acts do provide benefits – they raise the reputation of the do-gooder in the eyes of their peers. Some lab experiments have supported this idea by showing that people co-operate more strongly if they know they are being watched.

Now, Melissa Bateson and colleagues at the University of Newcastle have shown just how strong this effect with a cunning psychological experiment. Rather than study subjects in an artificial environment, they chose to run a simple test on the other unwitting members of their university’s Division of Psychology in their own coffee room.

The walls have eyes

For years, Bateson had put up a friendly notice reminding staff members to pay for their tea, milk and coffee by putting money into an honesty box. To run her experiment, she made one small change – she added an image banner to the top of the notice which alternated on different weeks between some flowers and a pair of eyes.

Being watched makes people more honestEach time, different eyes were used of varying gender and expression but in all cases, they were staring straight at the reader. When she compared the amount of money collected from week to week, with the amount of drink that people bought, the results were striking.

On average, people paid almost three times more for their drinks when the pair of eyes watched over them. When the image changed from flowers to eyes, the payments always went up and when they were changed back, they always went down. The mere appearance of Big Brother prompted people towards greater heights of honesty.

Being watched

It’s very unlikely that the eyes made the staff members consciously believe that they were actually being watched. After all, the room’s layout ensured that cheats who didn’t pay up would never be caught by their colleagues.

Instead, Bateson believes that the eye images probably set off unconscious and automatic reactions in people who viewed them, a sort of mental reflex. Her theory is that our brains are very keenly attuned to cues that indicate that their behaviour could affect their reputation.

The presence of onlookers could be one such cue, and indeed, human brains have special neurons that are primed to respond to eyes and faces. The effect of such cues must be very strong indeed, since the relatively weak stimulus of an image of eyes produced such strong changes in behaviour.

Being human

But what does this say about us? Are we truly all self-serving hypocrites, helping each other solely to further our status? Clearly not. For a start, even the images of flowers prompted staff members to contribute small amounts of money to the honesty box. If we were all the wholly selfish creatures that reductionists might have us believe, then even these paltry payments might be unexpected.

But more importantly, the responses to the eye images were sub-conscious, rather than active decisions. A selfless act consciously designed to further one’s status might be robbed of its valour. But a selfless act based on an instinctive reaction is a selfless act nonetheless.

If this experiment tells us anything, it is that safeguarding our reputation, for whatever reason, is very much part of being human.

Reference: Bateson, Nettle and Roberts. 2006. Biol. Lett. 2: 1744-9561.

Related posts on morality:
Our sense of fair play lives on the right side of the brain
The Lady Macbeth effect – how physical cleanliness affects moral cleanliness

Other posts on psychology: 
In conflicts over beliefs and values, symbolic gestures matter more than reason or money
Why music sounds right – the hidden tones in our own speech
Impulsive brains are primed for drug addiction

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