Why sticking eyes on a sign changes behaviour

Social scientists have found that we are more conscious of our actions, and therefore behave better, if we have the ‘feeling’ that we are being watched. Numerous academic studies have explored this phenomenon – here is a short overview of what we found out.

That feeling of being watched is uncomfortable – you feel more aware of your surrounding and become more alert. This instinct is ‘gaze detection’ – a chemical alert system built into our brains fires certain brain cells when someone’s staring at you (these don’t get triggered when they’re looking only a few degrees to your left or right). The theoretical basis for this is that predators study and stare at their prey before pouncing. Being alerted that something’s paying particularly close attention to you is a good way to know you’re being hunted.

Scientists at Newcastle University’s Centre for Behaviour and Evolution, put posters around the university where students were prone to dropping litter. Posters featuring images of eyes resulted in students being twice as likely to clean up their mess.

The same technique was used around areas where bikes were regularly being stolen. The results; theft down in the areas with the ‘watching eyes’ but up in the areas without them.  

Watching eyes have been used successfully to reduce petty crime and antisocial behaviour from bike theft to dog fouling to littering. But what about increasing socially positive activities, like handwashing?  
Studies around how to affect generosity also show prosocial behaviour significantly increasing with the use of ‘watching eyes’. Research using economic games, honesty boxes and charity giving, found ‘watching eyes’ resulted in a more socially co-operative response rate in each case. A pattern similarly found in research on handwashing.

So why do the eyes work? Alongside the ‘gaze detection’ response is another natural human instinct that increases socially co-operative behavior; social compliance. Most of us are conscious of our social reputation and perform in a more socially compliant way if we feel we are being observed.

Erez Yoel’s Ted Talk summarises three simple activities to harness the power of reputations for our collective good; removing barriers or excuses, informing and increasing observability. Small changes can make a big difference in human behaviour when you know what makes people tick.

Eyes seem like an easy intervention to modify behavior – so we’ve produced a sheet of (wipeable, removable) vinyl eye stickers to try out around your hand wash areas. They’ll also give your gel dispenser an instant personality!   

Thanks to all the social scientists leading the way in this field. If you’ve seen any interesting research on handwashing and motivation do send it our way, we are passionate about design for social good.

You can purchase our eye stickers here

Now, let's talk...

We’re not a big business – we’re Gill Marles + Adrian Barclay and you can talk to one of us. We will help you understand the process and share our experience of working in all sorts of healthcare environments.

Call us: 0117 949 3020 or email Gill or Adrian

Why sticking eyeballs in a sign changes behaviour

 ‘Cycle Thieves, We Are Watching You’: Impact of a Simple Signage Intervention against Bicycle Theft
Daniel Nettle, Kenneth Nott, Melissa Bateson. Published: December 12, 2012 More

Haley KJ, Fessler DMT (2005) Nobody’s watching? Subtle cues affect generosity in an anonymous economic game. Evolution and Human Behavior 26: 245–256.
View ArticleGoogle Scholar

Nettle D, Harper Z, Kidson A, Stone R, Penton-Voak IS, et al.. (2013) The watching eyes effect in the Dictator Game: It’s not how much you give, it’s being seen to give something. Evolution and Human Behavior.

Pfattheicher S, Strauch C, Diefenbacher S, Schnuerch R. A field study on watching eyes and hand hygiene compliance in a public restroom. J Appl Soc Psychol.
2018;00:1–7. https://doi.org/10.1111/jasp.12501

Science Direct
How to motivate people to do good for others