Scarecrows work on people too

As a child, I first realized how dumb birds must be when I saw my first scarecrow. How could the birds’ behavior be so radically affected by something that is obviously fake?

Now a new study suggests that humans (at least psychology professors) don’t behave much differently. From the writeup about the article:

Melissa Bateson and colleagues at Newcastle University, UK, put up new price lists each week in their psychology department coffee room. Prices were unchanged, but each week there was a photocopied picture at the top of the list, measuring 15 by 3 centimetres, of either flowers or the eyes of real faces. The faces varied but the eyes always looked directly at the observer.

In weeks with eyes on the list, staff paid 2.76 times as much for their drinks as in weeks with flowers. “Frankly we were staggered by the size of the effect,” Gilbert Roberts, one of the researchers, told New Scientist.

A few thoughts:

1) These psychologists are a lot less honest on average than the Bagel Man’s customers that we write about in Freakonomics. They pay almost 90% of the posted price on average. For the payments to jump almost three-fold in the experiment here, the psychologists couldn’t have been paying more than about 30% of the posted price.

2) There is an earlier study that finds a similar result: when people play trust games in lab experiments using a computer, putting an eye on the screen has the same sort of effect.

3) The article goes on to say the following:

It could have far-reaching implications. In previous experiments, people consistently appeared to behave more generously than they needed to for their own self-interest, even when told their actions were anonymous. This has led an influential school of economists to argue that altruism in humans is innate, rather than being based on cynical self-interest.

But if just a photocopied pair of eyes can treble honesty, the Newcastle team suspects that these previous experiments may somehow have been spoiled by subliminal cues that made people feel they were being watched.

In other words, self-interest may play a large part after all, with people feeling the need to be seen as honest. “Those results might need to be re-examined,” says Roberts.

Indeed, in a new working paper I have written with John List, we argue exactly this point. We believe that both theory and evidence suggests that what we learn in the lab, in many cases, will not be readily generalizable to naturally-occurring environments. The “scrutiny” of the lab is one reason. We provide others as well.


Collopy

I wonder if the difference in honesty can be partly explained by the different products. Bagels are solid and very tangible; stealing a bagel seems like stealing a thing. Coffee is liquid, and the concept of stealing a cup of coffee seems less offensive because it is less tangible. I wonder if any research has been done on this sort of psychology of theft.

brian

interesting. a guy i work with, by the name of will wright, builds robots for fun, and one of the ones he built was a robot "in distress" that laid on the road and waved its one good arm at passersby pleading for help. they watched from a hidden space across the street to monitor people's reactions. will says that single males generally started stripping the robot for parts, single women generally sped up, frightened or uncomfortable around the thing, and the people who tended most often to stop and help were couples.

anecdotally, at least, this supports that idea: the most altruistic people were those being watched, and notably watched by someone they cared to impress.

this is the best article i can find on the topic, and even it is just kind of a surreal interview that only briefly touches on "Sad Robot":

http://www.ddj.com/dept/architect/184415104

lucidish

A variant of this effect was already known by researchers in the area of human learning. Learners (novices or adept) who performed in front of an audience of statues would behave as if they were in front of a real audience.

brit

> For the payments to jump almost three-fold in the experiment here, the psychologists couldn't have been paying more than about 30% of the posted price.

It might be more complicated than that. For example, maybe the psychologists were sometimes taking coffee with the intention to pay later. When the eyes were there, they might've been more likely to pay for the current coffee, and might've also decided that they should (as long as they have their money out, or because they felt guilty with the eyes there) pay for that coffee they got a few days/weeks earlier, too. It might be interesting to find out if people were paying more than the listed price on the weeks where the eyes were there.

ciara86

Do you have the show Big Brother over here? On the intro to that show a magnified picture of a human eye is used to imply 'big brother is watching you' Maybe the psychologists took the picture of the eye to imply that some higher authority (heads of faculty, coffee-providers, etc) is watching them (on a secret camera or soemthing, I don't know?) and their honesty is only because they believe their behavious is in fact being monitered...just a thought.

Trogdor

So to take this too far, if MySpace, Facebook, etc had a big pair of eyes on them, I wonder if we'd have as many teens / college students posting the risque exploits we see these days ...

Anna Haynes

I used to have a piece of paper giving stretching exercises; the 'facial stretch' one had a rough sketch of someone with wide open mouth.

Made me yawn every time I looked at it.

tmitsss

The guy could have used a better sign or maybe golfers are just inherently dishonest.

http://www.azcentral.com/offbeat/articles/0703Golf-Balls-ON.html

yoel

Hi Steven,
I've read the working paper, which I like very much, especially as I'm interested in trust and altruism.

There's one thing I would change, which is the discussion of differences in hot/cold state decision-making (pp. 38-39). Specifically, where you say,

"We interpret these findings as suggesting that great care should be taken before making inference from short-run laboratory experiments, which might be deemed as 'hot' decision making, to long-run field environments, which
typically revolve around 'cold' decision making."

The last claim, especially, seems a big one to make without any evidence, and I would argue that it very much depends on what "field environment" you're talking about! For that matter, there's no reason to assert that laboratory experiments typically invoke "hot" decision making -- again, it all depends on the (experimental) context.

Otherwise, though, I liked it a lot.

Read more...

LincolnSmith

I think this article misses something very important about the whole experiment. That important piece is that humans are very intelligent animals. I haven't seen the signs used for the experiment, but if I was getting coffee regularly from this station and new sign was put up, I blieve a poster of flowers was introduced first, I think I would notice it. If after a couple weeks a new sign with eyes was staring at me I'm not sure if I'd consider this a subliminal or unconsious message. I think a sign with eyes would strike me as a somewhat indirect message from the coffee provider. Mostly likely both types of pressure are at work, both unconscious and conscious. I just don't think you can rule out the fact that many people might have viewed the eyes poster as a message intended for them from the coffee provider. Once again I don't know all the details of the experiment so I could be totally offbase on this.

Read more...

Gene Morris

Has anyone heard of the theory of psychological egoism?

Eliot

Maybe pictures of music artists in strategic locations could decrease illegal downloading.

Matt

Brian:"

interesting. a guy i work with, by the name of will wright, builds robots for fun, and one of the ones he built was a robot “in distress” that laid on the road and waved its one good arm at passersby pleading for help. they watched from a hidden space across the street to monitor people's reactions. will says that single males generally started stripping the robot for parts, single women generally sped up, frightened or uncomfortable around the thing, and the people who tended most often to stop and help were couples.

anecdotally, at least, this supports that idea: the most altruistic people were those being watched, and notably watched by someone they cared to impress.

this is the best article i can find on the topic, and even it is just kind of a surreal interview that only briefly touches on “Sad Robot”:

http://www.ddj.com/dept/architect/184415104
— brian "

----

the article went on to comment that men and women together would have some conversations with the robot.

i'm guessing that a lot more people considered that they could be watched from a far by the creator of the robot than just the couples riding together.

the people that did this seem to be more curious pranksters than social scientists and so did not consider various variables

it's not stated if any of the couples observed were

* both men or both women,

* how quickly the men would be scavenging for parts and considering that they could be filmed

* the possibility that rather than couples wanting to impress each other, that they could 1) see it as an opportunity to enjoy a fun activity together, or 2) that only when accompanied by another, could find the courage to approach the robot calmly

they could actually ask the people involved why they acted certain ways instead of just assuming...

Read more...

Collopy

I wonder if the difference in honesty can be partly explained by the different products. Bagels are solid and very tangible; stealing a bagel seems like stealing a thing. Coffee is liquid, and the concept of stealing a cup of coffee seems less offensive because it is less tangible. I wonder if any research has been done on this sort of psychology of theft.

brian

interesting. a guy i work with, by the name of will wright, builds robots for fun, and one of the ones he built was a robot "in distress" that laid on the road and waved its one good arm at passersby pleading for help. they watched from a hidden space across the street to monitor people's reactions. will says that single males generally started stripping the robot for parts, single women generally sped up, frightened or uncomfortable around the thing, and the people who tended most often to stop and help were couples.

anecdotally, at least, this supports that idea: the most altruistic people were those being watched, and notably watched by someone they cared to impress.

this is the best article i can find on the topic, and even it is just kind of a surreal interview that only briefly touches on "Sad Robot":

http://www.ddj.com/dept/architect/184415104

lucidish

A variant of this effect was already known by researchers in the area of human learning. Learners (novices or adept) who performed in front of an audience of statues would behave as if they were in front of a real audience.

brit

> For the payments to jump almost three-fold in the experiment here, the psychologists couldn't have been paying more than about 30% of the posted price.

It might be more complicated than that. For example, maybe the psychologists were sometimes taking coffee with the intention to pay later. When the eyes were there, they might've been more likely to pay for the current coffee, and might've also decided that they should (as long as they have their money out, or because they felt guilty with the eyes there) pay for that coffee they got a few days/weeks earlier, too. It might be interesting to find out if people were paying more than the listed price on the weeks where the eyes were there.

ciara86

Do you have the show Big Brother over here? On the intro to that show a magnified picture of a human eye is used to imply 'big brother is watching you' Maybe the psychologists took the picture of the eye to imply that some higher authority (heads of faculty, coffee-providers, etc) is watching them (on a secret camera or soemthing, I don't know?) and their honesty is only because they believe their behavious is in fact being monitered...just a thought.

Trogdor

So to take this too far, if MySpace, Facebook, etc had a big pair of eyes on them, I wonder if we'd have as many teens / college students posting the risque exploits we see these days ...

Anna Haynes

I used to have a piece of paper giving stretching exercises; the 'facial stretch' one had a rough sketch of someone with wide open mouth.

Made me yawn every time I looked at it.