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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.