The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching”

– John Wooden, UCLA Basketball Coach

How would your behavior change if you thought someone was watching you? A 2006 study by Melissa Bateson suggests that you might start acting more honestly. At least when paying for your coffee. Before we dive into the study, here is a picture of someone watching you so that you’re primed to be honest for the rest of the day.

a close up of a baby

Source: Gabriel Calancea

A University of Newcastle faculty lounge offered coffee and tea to professors and had for years used an unsupervised honor system. You served yourself, then you put the money you owed into a box. For ten weeks, though, the experimenters put a hard-to-miss poster near the box. One version of it featured flowers, while the other had a pair of eyes glaring out at the viewer. The image alternated between flowers and eyes each week. How did these posters affect payment:


Source: NIH

People paid almost 3x more on “eyes” weeks than on “flowers” weeks! When they saw a pair of eyes, participants consistently made higher payments for their drinks than when they saw flowers. The findings could be more convincing, though, if we knew around how much people used to pay before the experiment even started.

Still, the results are pretty strong. Bateson attributes them to the power of eyes, which create the “automatic and unconscious effect” of feeling like someone is watching you. Previous studies have shown that people become more cooperative when they’re being watched because they want to maintain a good reputation.

So if we care about what others think, we probably don’t want them to think we’re cheapskates. Even if the only thing judging us is a pair of eyes on a poster.

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