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At some point, you may have noticed a poster or photo with eyes on it hanging somewhere public. What you probably didn't notice is the effect that picture has on your brain.

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Take a look at the wall that's closest to you.

Probably you don't normally pay much attention to it. Now imagine that there was a picture of a pair of eyes staring out at you from the wall.

Maybe you'd be a little creeped out. Maybe you'd half-expect the eyeballs to blink at you and move back and forth like in a creepy movie for kids. But I'm guessing you would not look at the eyes and think, “oh, I should be more honest now.

Or more generous.” And yet, that is what research suggests that people do, even though they might not realize it. [INTRO ♪]. It makes sense that people would act differently when there are other people watching. You have more motivation to go looking for a recycling bin for your empty water bottle if there's someone staring at you the whole time, silently and also kinda creepily judging you.

But it turns out we might also act differently when it's just a picture of eyes watching us. It's called the watching eyes effect. One way researchers study this effect is by having people play special economic games, like the Dictator Game.

Which, weirdly enough, does not involve ruling North Korea. In the game, one person gets to decide — or dictate — how much money to keep for themselves and how much to give a partner, who's usually anonymous. In 2005, researchers from UCLA had 248 people play the game, some with a drawing of eyes as the computer screen background, and others with a different image.

People who saw the eyes tended to be more generous and give more money to their partner. The effect has been replicated in everyday settings too, where pictures of eyes resulted in things like fewer bike thefts and more people paying for drinks on an honor system. Psychologists think the watching eyes effect is like the baby version of what happens when there are actual people watching: we tend to be more prosocial—meaning we voluntarily do things that benefit society as a whole, like being more generous.

That probably has to do with building a good reputation. In our normal lives, we need to cooperate with others. And when you have a good reputation, people are more likely to cooperate and help you, which could mean the difference between surviving and thriving, or … not doing those things.

It's just part of being human. People are hardwired to react to faces, and we learn a lot of important information from seeing people's eyes, like what someone else is thinking about us. So it's possible that eyes, even just pictures of them, activate something within us that makes us try to promote a good reputation, even if no one will actually even see it.

Now, there are two main ways this could work:. It's possible that eyes give people a positive motivation to be prosocial and gain a good reputation or future reward. Basically, if you help someone now, they'll be more likely to help you later.

Or, eyes might give people a negative motivation to avoid violating some social norm— society's rules on how to behave— which would hurt their reputation. For example, if you lie to people, they probably won't trust you in the future, and will be less likely to help you. Some studies have tried to figure out whether there's a positive or negative motivation behind the watching eyes effect by pitting being prosocial against following a norm.

One study from Japan from 2015 had 188 undergraduates privately roll a die and then report what number they got. Those numbers turned into donations for a charity. If being prosocial was the bigger motivation, people would lie about the roll to earn more money for the charity.

But if avoiding violating a norm— being honest—was the bigger motivation, they should tell the truth, even though no one could tell if they lied or not. The researchers put either a drawing of eyes or a different drawing onto a computer screen that the subjects could see. When there wasn't a picture of eyes, they over-reported some numbers, giving more money to charity than you'd expect based on the odds of rolling dice.

But with the drawing of eyes, the numbers they reported were what you'd expect based on probability. In other words, the eyes encouraged honesty and not violating a norm, rather than just being prosocial in general. But other studies have found that there's more nuance in the way watching eyes make people follow norms.

Researchers set up different kinds of norms, where they made it seem like littering was or wasn't normal, or told subjects that people typically donated different amounts of money. If the biggest motivation behind the watching eyes effect was following a norm to protect your reputation, you'd expect people to follow those norms even if they weren't prosocial— meaning, even if the norm was to litter or not donate very much money. The studies found that the norms were important, but not in a straightforward way.

Pictures of eyes still affected people's behavior, but they didn't always follow what the norm suggested— they tended to do whatever best enhanced their reputation. So do eyes make us more prosocial, or do they make us want to avoid violating norms? It seems to depend on what you ask people to do, which makes sense: some norms are more powerful than others, and they affect your reputation in different ways.

The stronger motivation depends on the situation. And there are probably other moderating factors, too. Studies on the watching eyes effect often find that the effect is small, and others don't find an effect at all, which suggests that there are other things going on that influence whether there's an effect and how strong it is.

Cultural differences, the task that's being performed, the personalities of the people involved—they all matter. Some people, for example, are probably more vulnerable to the watching eyes effect because they pay more attention to social cues, like eyes. In other words, like so many other aspects of human behavior, it's complicated.

There are still lots of unanswered questions, but researchers are working on it. In the meantime, if you see a picture of eyes on a wall or poster, just know that it's probably affecting the way that you and other people around you act— and also probably in a good way. Unless the eyes start blinking at you.

In which case—run. Just get outta there. Thanks for using your eyes to watch this episode of SciShow Psych!

If you want to learn more about the weirdest aspects of human behavior and all kinds of other fascinating stuff about your mind, you can go to and subscribe. [OUTRO ♪].