Being watched encourages us to be nicer people – what psychologists call behaving “pro-socially”. Recent evidence has suggested this effect can even be driven by artificial surveillance cues, such as eyes pictured on-screen or painted on a donations jar. If true, this would offer up some simple ways to reduce low-level crime and, well, to encourage us all to treat each other a little better. But unfortunately, a new article in Evolution and Human Behavior, calls this into question.
The research background on this topic is a mix of positive and negative findings. Also, while some studies purport to explain the inconsistent results, such as surveillance cues being effective only when few other people are present to apply social pressure, other studies have found the opposite effect. All this raises the question of whether an effect exists at all.
The new article consists of two meta-analyses, which look at the big picture by combining results from past work. Stefanie Northover and her colleagues decided to focus on the effects of surveillance cues on people’s generosity – the behaviour that’s been most studied in the past (other studied behaviours include littering and handwashing).
One meta-analysis (combining results from 26 experiments involving 2,700 participants) looked at the effect of artificial surveillance cues like watching faces or eye-like symbols upon the mean amount given in generosity tasks; the other meta-analysis (27 experiments, nearly 20,000 participants) at whether people at least give something rather than nothing. Based on all this data, there was no effect of surveillance cues on people’s generosity (in statistical terms the effect sizes were .03 and .13 respectively). For anyone hoping to increase good behaviour by sticking a pair of eyes on the wall, the results are not promising. “Skepticism is warranted,” the researchers said.