But of course you only get a good reputation if others notice your good behaviour (hence online sellers’ eagerness for feedback). And that brings us back to the bus stop. This isn’t the first behavioural experiment to show that mere images of eyes, rather than actual human observers, are enough to improve our behaviour. In one earlier study, for example, a picture of eyes above an ‘honesty box’ to pay for milk in a coffee room at the University of Newcastle increased the contributions. Another study showed that images of eyes made people at a university cafeteria less likely to leave litter at their table.
Francey and Bergmüller say that their experiment goes further still by taking the test out into the wild: not the closed and rarefied (well, sort of) academic community of a university but the dangerous (well, sort of) streets of Geneva. They also followed up their observations with a questionnaire to establish if, for example, people actually noticed the eyes on the anti-litter notice. More people actually recalled the signs there that had flowers on – showing that greater visibility did not lead to more conscientious behaviour.
The findings will need some unravelling and elaboration. Why, for instance, didn’t the eyes make more people dispose of rubbish? Could it be, the researchers wondered, that the threshold was too high to make a difference – that those repelled by the idea of picking up someone else’s litter were not going to be swayed by a mere picture?
And why do mere pictures have an effect anyway? Clearly, we have evolved to respond to some very subtle, subconscious cues in our altruistic behaviour – a way, perhaps, of reducing the amount of cogitation needed to decide what to do. Other studies have borne this out: for example, evidence of neglect in an urban environment, such as graffiti or litter, makes people less likely to obey “do not enter” signs, and more likely to steal than to post letters left half-posted in letter boxes with money visible inside. This is what is known as the “broken windows” effect: social decline is self-amplifying. The implications for social responsibility are profound – whether we are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ citizens may depend less on who we are and more on what our environment is like.