The Eyes Have It

The Eyes Have It

The owner of the campground where we enjoyed the wonderful weather this past weekend in  Bruges had obviously read the research in his attempt to get guests to keep things clean – a common problem in campgrounds, where people often seem to not feel bound by what they would do at home. Posted prominently around the spotless sanitary facility were these signs:


This follows research by Bateson et al (2006) (or write-up) who found that office workers were most likely to pay for their coffee when there were eyes watching them, even if it was just a picture of eyes. The same group also found that eyes reduced littering, even without a message exhorting people not to litter (Ernest-Jones et al, 2010), and that eyes reduced bicycle theft (Nettle et al, 2012).

In the toilet building, the message to keep the facility clean was reinforced by the fact that it was already so clean. This showed that everyone else had listened to the message, which provided social norms pressure to take the small effort not to be the one to mess it up. This follows Cialdini’s parking lot experiments, where people are more likely to throw a flyer placed under their windshields on the ground when others have obviously done so (unless someone else litters in a clean environment).

It’s hard to separate these out, though some work by Bateson et al (2013) seems to indicate that the eyes have more power, working whether or not the descriptive norms of the area allow littering. In any case, it’s worth giving the eyes a try when there’s a pro-social behaviour you want to encourage!

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