“Big Brother is Watching You”: A Biological Approach to the Evolution of Honesty and the Psychology of Giving

29 Dec

Article by Tiffany Taylor, posted on September 15, 2010 on Science Oxford Online (see original article here:

The reign of Big Brother may have come to an end, but relatively recent craze of reality TV shows have allowed us to become bystanders to the lives of strangers, and the increasing usage of surveillance technology means there are few places we are completely “off the radar”. But can the knowledge of being watched change our perception of decency? And perhaps, could it be used to create a more honest and generous society?

In the University of Newcastle an ethologist, Melissa Bateson, wanted to see whether she could manipulate her colleagues’ generosity through subtle visual cues. An honesty box had been in use for many years in the University staff room to cover the cost of tea and coffee. Above the honesty box at eye level an image was placed which alternated weekly between eyes and flowers (Figure 1). The results showed that just the photocopied image of a pair of eyes was enough to significantly increase the weekly contribution compared to an image of flowers.

This suggested that people were more likely to contribute if they felt like their actions were being watched. The researchers believed this behaviour was driven by a desire to maintain a positive reputation within a social group.

This result is perhaps not surprising, but it conjured up a number of questions for me: why do we feel the need to maintain this reputation, is it through fear of punishment, or hope of reward? Can such behaviour be observed in other animals? And, can it be used to influence and manipulate social groups?

The Evolution of Being Nice

It’s not only humans that have this concern for social perception, Bshary and Gutter found the cleaner wrasse fish (which forms a mutualism with larger fish helping clear them of parasites) must be seen to be honest before it will be allowed a meal. Occasionally cleaner fish will “cheat” and take small nips out of a bigger fish’s flesh, however, if caught in the act by another potential customer they are less likely to get a feed and may also be subject to punishment by the violated client. As such, it’s been shown that the presence of bystanders will reduce the frequency of cheating behaviour. Punishment for bad behaviour is also used by meerkats. In this hierarchical society it is only the dominant female who is allowed to breed, as she requires the help of the whole group to maximise the survival of all her offspring. If however, a subordinate female is showing signs of pregnancy, the dominant female will harass the subordinate resulting in the abortion her foetus. These examples are based on punishment, but there are also social groups which reward “good” behaviour. The vampire bat requires a nightly blood meal in order to survive, but sometimes they inevitably come home after a night foraging with empty bellies. The bat will beg to a neighbour in the hope that they may take pity and share a small amount of their blood meal, the neighbour can either choose to regurgitate a small amount or keep his dinner to himself. However, those which are not charitable are more likely to be refused a meal in the future when it is their time of need. As such, it pays to be seen being sympathetic, as the donator knows they are likely to be returned the favour in the future. Explaining the maintenance of cooperation in a group has been a tricky biological problem, what is to stop free-loading and uneven contribution? But “enforced cooperation”, i.e. a mechanism which rewards those that cooperate and punishes those who exploit, could help explain how cooperative behaviour is maintained. In terms of human evolution it is thought this theory of reciprocity, that is be nice to those who have been nice to you in the past, has been an important mechanism in the evolution of our own cooperative behaviour, therefore it makes sense that being “seen to be kind” might be engrained in our psychology and provide a direct benefit in a highly social group, such as humans.

“Did you see that?”

Psychologists are well aware of people’s desire to appear to be contributing to society or “prosocial” behaviour to use the jargon. This made me contemplate ways that we could be influenced, and even manipulated, by clever use of an implied witness to our actions creating a sense of accountability. Two very interesting studies showed how people might be manipulated subconsciously to become more generous by invoking the thought of an invisible presence. The first study was by Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan who invited participants to play a game whereby they were given $10 each, and could choose whether to share any of it with an anonymous player. Before the game commenced, participants were asked to unscramble sentences which were designed to prime either the notion of a God, thoughts of a civic institution, or some other neutral prime. Results showed that participants who had been primed to invoke the image of a God or a non-religious altruistic community gave more than $4 on average (this was independent of whether the participant claimed to be religious or not), compared to $2.56 which was the average amount given away by those primed with neutral content.

In the second experiment, Kevin Haley and Daniel Fessel played an identical game to that described above, however this time the experimenters had one of two images displayed on a computer desktop when the participant entered the room. Half the participants saw a stylised depiction of the human eye, whereas the others saw a warehouse background (Figure 2). Here, the results show participants exposed to the eyes gave on average 55% more, compared to those which were not exposed ($3.79 compared with $2.45).

“With great power, comes great responsibility”

I find this potential for subtle manipulation a bit disconcerting and wondered what role it might play in policing and consumerism today. Here is an example of research which could theoretically be applied for “the greater good”. Using psychology to influence the perception of being watched giving accountability for our actions might, in fact, encourage cooperative and prosocial behaviour, but can we justify using manipulation and subconscious stimuli to control social groups based on this fact? Or am I being naive to think it isn’t already used as a tool in today’s society? In my opinion, it’s all seems a bit nineteen eighty-four to me.

Bateson M., Nettle D., and Roberts G. (2006). Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting. Biology Letters 2: 412-414.
Bshary R., and Grutter A.S. (2006). Image scoring and cooperation in a cleaner fish mutualism. Nature 441: 975-978.
West S.A., Griffin A.S., and Gardner A. (2007). Evolutionary Explanations for Cooperation. Current Biology 17: R661-R672.
Jaeggi A.V., Burkart J.M., and Van Schaik C.P. (2010) On the psychology of cooperation in humans and other primates: combining the natural history and experimental evidence of prosociality. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 365: 2723-2735.
Shariff A.F., Norenzayan A. (2007). God Is Watching You. Psychological Science 18: 803-809.
Haley K.J., Fessler D.M.T. (2005). Nobody’s watching?: Subtle cues affect generosity in an anonymous economic game. Evolution and Human Behavior 26: 245-256.


Posted by on December 29, 2010 in Evolution, Psychology, Sociality


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2 responses to ““Big Brother is Watching You”: A Biological Approach to the Evolution of Honesty and the Psychology of Giving

  1. Nisha Julca

    January 10, 2011 at 21:09

    Can I just say what a relief to find someone who decently knows what they’re talking about on the internet. You certainly know how to bring an issue to light and make it absorbing. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.

    • Cell to Self

      January 12, 2011 at 17:25

      Well thank you! That’s so nice to hear. Only just started at this blogging thing, so please pass on the word, and keep reading!


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