Following on from the ‘honesty box’ experiments described in Freakonomics, here’s another study of honesty reported in New Scientist – you can probably think of some practical applications for this effect straight away:
We all know the scene: the departmental coffee room, with the price
list for tea and coffee on the wall and the "honesty box" where you pay
for your drinks – or not, because no one is watching.
In a finding that will have office managers everywhere scurrying for
the photocopier, researchers have discovered that merely a picture of
watching eyes nearly trebled the amount of money put in the box.
Melissa Bateson and colleagues at Newcastle University, UK, put up new
price lists each week in their psychology department coffee room.
Prices were unchanged, but each week there was a photocopied picture at
the top of the list, measuring 15 by 3 centimetres, of either flowers
or the eyes of real faces. The faces varied but the eyes always looked
directly at the observer.
In weeks with eyes on the list, staff paid 2.76 times as much for their
drinks as in weeks with flowers. "Frankly we were staggered by the size
of the effect," Gilbert Roberts, one of the researchers, told New
Get the full story (with a picture of the poster they used) here.
The implication would be that we act more honestly when we feel we are being watched – even if just by a picture of some eyes. This could be an example of the ‘trigger features’, tending to produce ‘mindless, automatic compliance’ that Robert Cialdini describes in his excellent book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.