Total Eclipse: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Festival of Science, Music, and Celestial Wonder. August 19–21, 2017 in Eastern Oregon.

Why Sticking a Pair of Eyeballs on a Sign Actually Changes Behavior

(Photo: Straight 8 Photography/shutterstock.com) 

It’s so damn easy.

The stash is right there, next to the entrance. The clerk has his back turned, occupied with a pesky customer. The security guard is literally out to lunch. And, after a quick examination of the ceiling corners—your casing disguised by a deft faux stretch maneuver—you’re confident that this bodega doesn’t have any security cameras, and certainly not the capital to install hidden ones. So you do what any great criminal mastermind would do: You take the pack of Mentos from the shelf, place it in your pocket, and walk out.

But, wait! As you grab the goods, you pause. Above the stack of Mentos is a piece of paper on which someone has drawn a pair of eyes. They’re inanimate, definitely not attached to any legitimate surveillance equipment… but, still. They’re glaring at you. They creep you out. There’s something off about them. So, instead of making the score, you save your luck for another day and lurk out of the store.

The eyes won this round. 

This is the concept of eye image compliance, the use of eye images based on social psychological research. The main obvious use is the scenario described above: Small-stakes thieving and overall “bad behavior.” Stick up enough of these eyes in locations desirable to thieves, litterers, and nuisance makers, you’ll make the world a better place. At the very least, a compliant one.

Crime prevention poster from Nottinghamshire police. (Photo: Nottinghamshire police)

Our friends across the pond have been using eye-inhabiting signs as part of their crime deterrence for the past decade. The West Midlands, U.K. police department—as part of their appropriately Orwellianly-named campaign Operation Momentum—used a version of this idea back in 2006. And in 2013, posters in Nottinghamshire featuring the eyes of one of their police inspectors reportedly cut theft rates by 40 percent.

(Also of note: The small eye mosaics scattered throughout the Chambers Street/World Trade Center subway station are part of Oculus, an art installation commissioned by the MTA. “The eyes aren’t Big Brother,” insisted Kristin A. Jones, one of the artists, upon the project’s completion in 1999. “They’re an attempt to humanize the subway station and give New Yorkers an opportunity to look each other in the eye.” Which: Okay, sure. But one has to think that art consisting of Big Brother-like imagery was a relatively easy sell to the city.)

Chambers Street subway station. (Photo: The All-Nite Images/flickr)

One American security sign company, MySecuritySign.com, has even made it a standard feature on their sign templates, where customers can pay a slight premium to have a pair of eyes looming out at the possible scofflaws. “We took care in creating eye images that were non-threatening but still distinct,” said one the sign’s designer, Alex Roitman, during a PR blitz back in 2013. “If people feel watched, they are more conscious of their actions.”

This isn’t simply a way for sign companies to make a quick extra buck. There’s actually science to back it up. In 2011, a group of scientists at Newcastle University’s Center for Behavior and Evolution—headed by Melissa Bateson and Daniel Nettle—stuck a bunch of posters around the university, hung at eye level, where students were prone to litter. After they crunched the numbers, researchers found that when the posters featured images of eyes, students were twice as likely to clean up their mess.

So, what’s occurring here? Something called “gaze detection.” Ever get a strange ESP-like sense that someone’s watching you, so you quickly turn to them, and, turns out, they were? That’s gaze detection. It’s a system that’s been built into our brains. (Studies actually show that certain brain cells fire when someone’s staring at you, but don’t get triggered when they’re looking only a few degrees to your left or right.) The reason why we’ve evolved this instinct is theoretical but obvious: Predators stare and study 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.

Predators such as wolves peer closely and stalk their prey. (Photo: Holly Kuchera/shutterstock.com)

In 2013, the Newcastle researchers upped the stakes of their previous study by placing posters—along with a warning that “Cycle Thieves: We Are Watching You”—near bike racks. After two years, they found that bike thefts from racks with those signs above dropped 62%. However, there were two issues with the study, according to Tom Stafford, a lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science for the University of Sheffield: (1) Did the signs actually reduce theft? (2) Why did the signs have an effect?

The first is easy to pinpoint as an issue. Because, while there was a drastic improvement in a reduction of bike thefts where signs where located—again, a 62% drop—researchers also found that bike thefts went up 63% in other parts of the campus. “The study showed that theft was displaced to non-signed areas,” wrote Stafford, in an email. “So not an unalloyed benefit!” The whole thing is reminiscent of the old joke: It doesn’t matter if you’re quicker than the lion, just if you’re quicker than your friend.

As far as the second issue, the problem Stafford has was with the study’s design. “The signs included [both] the university and security service logos [and] a warning message,” wrote Stafford. “We cannot know if these had the effect alone or in combination with the eyes.” If researchers want to be sure that the eyes—and the eyes alone—have the intended effect, the signs would have to only include those images.

A close-up of sign produced by the University of Newcastle and right, the sign in situ. (Photo: © 2012 Nettle et al/PLOS)

Whether this is a lasting solution, though, is a unresolved debate. “We also don’t know, from the experiment reported, whether the eyes effect would ‘wear off’ as people got used to it,” wrote Stafford.”

But, still, the images seem to work, in large part because of the presence of eyes. “It is plausible that if we think we’re being watched we might behave,” wrote Stafford. “We do know for sure that eyes capture visual attention. They stand out, are often the first thing people notice, etc., so it may just be that the eyes make people notice the signs, which then have more effect.”

A 2007 study hints towards possibly the next step for this low-impact compliance technology. Subjects participated in a “public goods game,” a simulation standard used to detect how private a person believes their actions are. One half of the subjects participated in only the game, while the other half did so while being “watched” by an image on their computer of a robot that looked completely non-humanoid “with the exception of its eyes.” The study found that subjects who were watched “contribute 29% more to the public good.” On the same wavelength, a 2013 study using mock Facebook pages showed that people lied less when eyes were “watching” them.

So, the next possible step for using these images? Maybe thwarting internet trolls.

“Does capturing attention work on the internet?” wrote Stafford. “Definitely, look at how many ads move, or contain faces.” Might not be a bad idea to put some eyeballs in the internet equivalent of a bodega with a distracted clerk: the comments section.