ONCE AGAIN, the New York Times brings us an article by our favorite evolutionary biologist, Olivia Judson, a research fellow in biology at Imperial College London: Feel the Eyes Upon You.
Here are some excerpts:
A couple of years ago, scientists at a university in the north of England did an experiment in their staff common room where people are supposed to pay for coffee by putting money into a box — an honor system. Above the notice reminding everyone to pay, the scientists put a picture of eyes during some weeks and a picture of flowers in other weeks. In the weeks with eyes, people paid more often than they did in the weeks with flowers.
… a number of researchers believe that humans have neural circuits dedicated to perceiving eyes and the direction they’re looking.
Why might this have evolved?
Okay, Olivia, you’ve got our attention. Tell us what you think.
Humans are a highly social species; perhaps we’ve evolved to be sensitive to being watched because what other people see you doing may alter the way they treat you. In our evolutionary past, individuals seen to be selfish or greedy may have found themselves ostracized — or even killed.
Maybe. But what do we do with these ideas?
To my mind, all this raises a slew of questions. Our cities are plastered with images of faces — do these influence our behavior? What about countries that have real dictators, whose photographs are ubiquitous — does that have an effect? Moreover, to date, experiments have looked at the effects of eyes on generosity and honesty. But can images of eyes modulate other aspects of our behavior — a tendency for vandalism, say? Instead of signs announcing, in words, the presence of surveillance systems, would pictures of pairs of eyes be more effective?
Perhaps we should do some experiments.
Olivia, your Curmudgeon volunteers to be your test subject. Cast your eyes in our direction. We strongly suspect that something might develop.