Uploaded by Michael Nicholls

Watching Eyes Literature Review

The Watching Eyes Effect and Human Behaviour
Michael Nicholls
Victoria University
The Watching Eyes Effect and Human Behaviour
It has long been known that humans are social beings, using cooperation to survive
and emotional connection to learn, thus, it would come as no surprise that human behaviour
would be altered in the presence of another. Recent observations have sought to determine
how far these alterations go and from what they can be caused by. One such instance, the
“watching eyes effect”, the phenomenon wherein individuals are observed to behave more
cooperatively and altruistically when exposed to other’s eyes or imagery of eyes (Pfattheicher
& Keller, 2015; Rotella, Sparks, Mishra & Barclay, 2021), has become a focus point for
many researchers. Many previous studies have been successful in identifying the existence of
the watching eyes effect, citing increases in prosocial behaviour, when individuals act in the
benefit of another (Rotella et al., 2021), and generosity. However, many studies have also
failed to replicate these previous results, while others implicate different factors to be affected
instead, such as a decrease in antisocial behaviour or impulsivity. It is apparent many
researchers have concentrated their efforts to understanding the watching eyes effect, yet the
findings remain inconsistent, therefore, it is imperative to explore such phenomena in greater
depth as the potential to incite positive and selfless behaviour in the public could benefit
society greatly. As such, the current literature review aims to summarise a series of research
articles focused on the watching eyes effect, in turn, identifying the multitude of variables
associated with it as well as any potential gaps in literature.
Many previous studies have been successful in establishing an increase in positive
behaviours, such as generosity and cooperation, when individuals are exposed to imagery of
eyes (Ernest-Jones, Nettle & Bateson 2011; Haley & Fessler, 2005; Pfattheicher & Keller,
2015). During a quantitative investigation by Ernest-Jones et al. (2011), a field experiment
was conducted to determine the effects posters with eyes or flowers paired with a congruent
or incongruent message would have on littering behaviours of customers in a cafeteria.
Ernest-Jones et al. (2011) found that posters of eyes prompted people to be more likely to
clear litter from their tables compared to those exposed to posters of flowers, independent of
whether a congruent or incongruent message was presented. Furthermore, Ernest-Jones et al.
(2011) found people were also less likely to litter when in the presence of more actual people,
including other patrons as well as the size of the groups they were in. Similarly, Haley and
Fessler (2005) established through a quantitative study revolving around a “dictator game”
that exposing individuals to visual imagery of stylized eyes was effective in increasing
generosity, while also finding that removing audio cues of the presence of others had no
effect. This study by Haley and Fessler (2005) is able to separate visual stimuli representing
the presence of others from other forms of stimuli in regard to efficacy in changing
behaviour, citing humans to being innately attuned to the presence of faces as the cause.
Additionally, a quantitative study by Pfattheicher and Keller (2015) was able to conclude that
the efficacy of the watching eyes effect was directly related to an individual’s degree of
public self-awareness, with higher public self-awareness correlating with increased likelihood
of the individual donating when exposed to the watching eye effect. These findings by
Pfattheicher and Keller (2015) may explain why some research is unsuccessful in replicating
results that support the watching eye effect, as individuals in those studies may have been low
in public self-awareness. Both Ernest-Jones et al. (2011) and Haley and Fessler (2005)
provide evidence to support the existence of the watching eye effect, while Pfattheicher and
Keller’s (2015) study further expands on this foundation and analyses the potential
underlying causes whilst simultaneously addressing certain gaps in literature.
Despite the previous researchers’ findings supporting the watching eyes effect, similar
amounts of evidence either contradict or interpret the results differently. One such study by
Nettle, Harper, Kidson, Stone, Penton-Voak, and Bateson (2013), which was a replication of
the dictator game study by Haley and Fessler (2005), determined that it was the likelihood of
donating rather than the mean amount donated per donation that increased. This difference in
findings by Nettle et al. (2013) allows them to propose that rather than the watching eyes
effect increasing prosocial behaviours, it is instead reducing variation in social behaviour. In
contrast, research by Rotella et al. (2021), which also used the dictator game, failed to
replicate the results entirely, finding instead there to be no difference in the amount donated
regardless of if they were in the presence of eyes. This notion is further supported by a study
by Shinohara and Yamamoto (2018), which again, found no correlation between generous
behaviour and the presence of eyes. Furthermore, Shinohara and Yamamoto (2018) also
aimed to investigate if the watching eyes effect decreased impulsivity, which would
subsequently help explain the reduction in variation in social behaviour found in past
research. However, as they could not find any observable effect, they dismissed reduction in
impulsivity as an outcome entirely. To expand the scope of the watching eyes effect, Park,
Lee and Sah (2022) sought to examine this phenomenon in an online space, exploring
possible interactions it had with users’ private and public self-awareness when posting
comments to an online comments section. Whilst they were able to gather evidence
supporting an increase in private self-awareness, they established there to be no correlation
between feelings of being observed and an increase in public self-awareness in this online
space (Park et al., 2022). This lack of change in public self-awareness implicates users did
not engage in prosocial behaviour despite being under the influence of the watching eyes
effect. Park et al. (2022) suggests this may be caused by users retaining their sense of
anonymity in the online space, weakening the watching eyes effect. The mentioned articles
exhibit the many contradicting opinions regarding the watching eyes effect and its existence
(Nettle et al., 2013; Rotella et al., 2021; Shinohara & Yamamoto, 2018), whilst also
demonstrating there are limits and facets of the effect that are yet not well understood or
discovered (Park et al., 2022; Shinohara & Yamamoto, 2018). This incites the need for
further research to not only confirm, but also understand the implications and limits of the
watching eyes effect.
Overall, research on the watching eyes effect has varied greatly, while some studies
are able to provide evidence for its existence, others fail to replicate the same results, its
application and cause similarly remain inconclusive. Largely, the watching eyes effect has
been presented to increase prosocial behaviour, such as generosity and cooperation (ErnestJones et al., 2011; Haley & Fessler, 2005; Pfattheicher & Keller, 2015). On the contrary,
research has also shown the lack of the watching eyes effect entirely in similar or replicated
studies (Rotella et al., 2021; Shinohara & Yamamoto, 2018). This variation in results is
further highlighted by studies such as by Nettle et al. (2013), who determined the watching
eyes effect to reduce deviation in social behaviour rather than increase prosocial behaviour.
Furthermore, the intricate nature of the phenomenon is exemplified when Haley and Fessler
(2005) implicate public self-awareness to be a foundation to the watching eyes effect and
Park et al. (2022) demonstrates the lack of connection between increased public selfawareness caused by the watching eyes effect and prosocial behaviour in an online
environment. The various mixed results as well as discrepancies in range and scope of the
watching eyes effect identifies many gaps in literature, such as what increases or decreases
the efficacy of its effects, as well as how necessary future research is to better understand and
implement such a phenomenon into society.
Ernest-Jones, M., Nettle, D., & Bateson, M. (2011). Effects of eye images on everyday
cooperative behavior: a field experiment. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(3),
172–178. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.10.006
Haley, K. J., & Fessler, D. M. T. (2005). Nobody’s watching? Evolution and Human
Behavior, 26(3), 245–256. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2005.01.002
Nettle, D., Harper, Z., Kidson, A., Stone, R., Penton-Voak, I. S., & Bateson, M. (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, 34(1), 35–40.
Park, I., Lee, D., & Sah, Y. J. (2022). Under watching eyes in news comment sections: effects
of audience cue on self-awareness and commenting behaviour. Behaviour &
Information Technology, 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/0144929x.2022.2114937
Pfattheicher, S., & Keller, J. (2015). The watching eyes phenomenon: The role of a sense of
being seen and public self-awareness. European Journal of Social Psychology, 45(5),
560–566. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2122
Rotella, A., Sparks, A. M., Mishra, S., & Barclay, P. (2021). No effect of “watching eyes”:
An attempted replication and extension investigating individual differences. PLOS
ONE, 16(10), e0255531. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0255531
Shinohara, A., & Yamamoto, S. (2018). No Evidence for the Watching-Eyes Effect on
Human Impulsivity. Frontiers in Psychology, 9.