How Big Brother keeps us honest

By Ed Yong | May 10, 2008 1:00 pm

Imagine that you’re walking along a quiet street and you see a wallet lying on the pavement. Would you take it? Now imagine a slightly different situation – 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 buy 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.

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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 their genes reap a reward.

Wallet.jpgBut 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? One theory is that such selfless acts do provide benefits – they raise the reputation of the do-gooder in the eyes of their peers. Even selfish people can act selflessly when their reputation is on the line.

Lab experiments have shown that people co-operate more strongly if they know they are being watched. But Melissa Bateson and colleagues at the University of Newcastle have shown just how honest people become when they feel that Big Brother is watching them, using a cunning experiment in a more natural environment. Rather than artificial confines of a lab, they chose to run a simple test on the unwitting members of their university’s Division of Psychology in their own coffee room.

The walls have eyes

Eye.jpg 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. Each 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.

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 could not be spotted and 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 our behaviour could affect our 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.

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, then even these paltry payments might be unexpected.

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, M., Nettle, D., Roberts, G. (2006). Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting. Biology Letters, 2(3), 412-414. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2006.0509


Comments (11)

  1. Jim Thomerson

    I was riding the British rail system, where there is an honor system on tickets, occasionally monotored. There was a sign which said if you were caught without a ticket, people would look at you. At the time, I did not think Americans would consider this much of a threat. I did ride, one time, without a ticket, and wasn’t caught.

  2. Would this sort of thing really work in a psychology department? Wouldn’t they notice that they were being experimented upon, and that skew the results? I think this needs replication in a humanities department.

  3. According to the paper, “Participants were naive to the purposes of the manipulation and none reported being aware of these.”
    Oh and Britain emphatically doesn’t operate an honour system on our rail network, but it just goes to show how effective the ticket inspectors are that you assumed that we do.

  4. I did find a wallet on the street once, and made every effort to (and finally did) return it to its owner. But had there been a red circle around it? No way. Obviously not a “lost” wallet, something going on there that I want no part of.

  5. Yes I thought the reference to the “honour system” on the British rail network was a joke too, there are so few inspectors that it does almost feel that way sometimes.
    But I thought your reference to “selfishness” and “self-serving vessels” looked like a cheap and even probably misleading reference to The Selfish Gene. It’s obvious to me that it is just a term used to refer to the unit of selection and not to selfishness at the level of the individual or of the species.
    In fact, the continued existence and propagation of particular genetic patterns that encourage co-operation is precisely an explanation for selflessness and a strong argument against pure “Darwinist” behaviour. Remember only the pattern needs to survive, not the individual instance.
    I’m sure you know all that, but I think loose usage of the word “selfish” just gives propaganda to IDiots.

  6. As a quick addendum, this was the line that piqued: In this harsh light, individuals co-operate with each other only if they reap a personal reward.
    Again, the selfish gene is a unit of selection that can explain co-operation even in absence of personal reward.

  7. Jim Thomerson

    My referenced experience was for about a week in 1991, between London and St. Albans. I never saw a monitor, nor had my ticket checked. However, now that I think about it, I recall that my stolen ride was on a Berlin subway.

  8. H.

    Your say “individuals co-operate with each other only if they reap a personal reward”. This is not true. It should say “individuals co-operate with each other only if their genes reap a personal reward”. It’s about the selfish gene.
    And the stuff with the eyes : the catholic church is doing this already for ages with the “God is watching you” one-eye-in-triangle posters. But it is a very nice experiment – I’m going to do it too!

  9. Gregory

    Giving and receiving implies more than one entity. If you don’t consider yourself (recognize your own ego) then giving and receiving are one and the same thing and all you will notice is a change (things are exchanged). If you give and do not consider that you received anything then you are involving your ego. If you disregard your ego then you will notice that giving is relief from a burden and this is the reward (assuming you need one LOL). If you are the receiver of something and disregard you ego then you have a burden to bear and will no doubt pass it on – this is the game. If you receive something you want and regard your ego (separateness) then you will try keep it and justify the benefits of your ownership. One sure way to divide and conquer is to promote ownership – ego – identity. The truth of the matter is that if “anything is owned” by anyone it is “everything is owned by every one and everything”.

  10. Very interesting post. I remember the point being rised in a Lab where a more communal use was proposed to decrease contamination of the bench with toxic reagents (obviously some people are less prone to clean a toxic waste if nobody’s looking around…).
    “In this harsh light, individuals co-operate with each other only if their genes reap a reward.”
    Oh, the ‘only’ seems a bit too strong here… This is actually a requirement for a selection of a genetical altruism (as mentionned above, the selfish gene hypothesis). But you can co-operate even without a reward back. In an evolutionary perspective, this just means you’ll be counterselected (as long as there is a negative effect on [gene]-fitness). There’s nothing that really prevents co-operation to occur… (and under a strict genetical view, you’ll still expect the “freeltruist mutant” to subsist at a very low frequency, depending on mutation rate, possible dominance effects, selection and drift…).


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