Floating eyes spook dishonest free riders

Here's an old news item I meant to write up but never did. It's something that a majority of us probably know about: the honor system in the office coffee room.

Coffee room eyes

This image staring at you was one of several tested in the psychology department coffee room at Newcastle University. Some weeks would have a picture of human eyes looking at people paying for their coffee and some weeks would have pictures of flowers. In the weeks when eyes were displayed, coffee revenue was 2.76 times higher on average than in the other weeks.

It could have far-reaching implications. In previous experiments, people consistently appeared to behave more generously than they needed to for their own self-interest, even when told their actions were anonymous. This has led an influential school of economists to argue that altruism in humans is innate, rather than being based on cynical self-interest.

But if just a photocopied pair of eyes can treble honesty, the Newcastle team suspects that these previous experiments may somehow have been spoiled by subliminal cues that made people feel they were being watched.

In other words, self-interest may play a large part after all, with people feeling the need to be seen as honest. “Those results might need to be re-examined,” says Roberts.

Humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize things. We are social beings; we fill in the presence of others even when they're not there. I'm not sure if animal-human hybrid gods emphasize the animal side of humans or draw animals up to our level, but I know that people react differently to a picture of a person on a bulletin board at work than they do to text with the same message.

Food for thought: totalitarian governments always have pictures of the Fearless Leader everywhere to encourage obedience to the will of a handful of people; the picture above encourages people to abide by generally accepted standards of conduct.

Full story here.

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