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Behavioral Economics and The Eye Effect

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Altruism and the Eye Effect

The source of altruism to strangers is an urgent current matter. Why do we behave more correctly when we are monitored? This question is associated with the Eye Effect, which occurs when we have more altruistic behavior, as long as we sense that someone is watching us.

There are two explanations for the inexplicable growth of altruism. The first mentions that people behave like this because they expect a possible future reward, or they condemn the non-altruistic behavior (Gintis, 2000). These two explanations can happen simultaneously and they are not overlapping.

So, when there is a cue of social presence (eyes), we tend to behave more correctly and altruistically because we expect some kind of reward or the eyes awake a fear of being punished for not behaving properly. A different theory proposes that the presence of eyes, even if they are fictitious, can make us follow the social norms.

Studies about the Eye Effect

Scientific literature mentions numerous cases of research on this particular effect. Jonesa-Ernest, Nettleb and Batesbomb (2010), found that placing posters that depicted eyes on a self-service cafeteria led to more people cleaning their tables before they left.

Nettle and his colleagues (2013), found that when eyes were present in the room, the participants tend to give away more money to the rest of the players on the Dictator Game (an economic game that measures the economic motivations of players through their financial allocations). Also, in Keller & Pfattheicher’s study (2011), participant had a bigger desire to make donations, when they felt that they were being watched.

There are a lot of studies for the Eye Effect, with some of the most important being replicated again and again, leading to ambiguous results. The Eye Effect is real, but the behavior motivations and the causes of its birth are still not fully understood.

The Eye Effect as a Nudge

It could be said that the depiction of eyes is a nudge, not just because of its attention-drawing ability, but because there is a connection between the sense of being watched and proper social behavior. It is mentioned that pictures with eyes is possible to function effectively in cases where people are alone and there are not a lot of others around.


The Eye Effect is one of the most promising ways of fighting antisocial behavior, but it should be researched in depth, to understand its full cause of birth and potential. Using it as a nudge remains hopeful, because its application is really simple and the direction of the behavior is pro-social.

Have you ever felt that someone is watching you in public? How did this change your behavior? Do you agree with the aforementioned? Share your opinion!


Christos Panousis

Researcher and Writer for Nudge Unit Greece

~Explaining Behavioral Economics Simply~



Ernest-Jones, M., Nettle, D., & Bateson, M. (2011). Effects of eye images on everyday cooperative behavior: A field experiment. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(3), 172–178.

Keller, J., & Pfattheicher, S. (2011). Vigilant self‐regulation, cues of being watched and cooperativeness. European Journal of Personality, 25(5), 363-372.

Nettle, D., Harper, Z., Kidson, A., Stone, R., Penton-Voak, I. S., & Bateson, M. (2013). The watching eyes effect in the Dictator Game: It’s not how much you give, it’s being seen to give something. Evolution and Human Behavior, 34(1), 35–40.

Oda, R., Niwa, Y., Honma, A., & Hiraishi, K. (2011). An eye-like painting enhances the expectation of a good reputation. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(3), 166–171.

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