John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Researchers say images of angry, watching eyes reduce littering by as much as two-thirds.
Imagine crumpling up a leaflet and tossing it in the gutter. Now think of doing it again, but with a leaflet printed with big, pissed off-looking eyes.
You probably feel less inclined to throw the paper on the ground, according to a new study from the U.K.’s Newcastle University. After performing an experiment which found that posters of angry eyes deterred bike theft by as much as 62 percent, ethologist Melissa Bateson and compatriots tried a similar test with littering. They went about their campus draping bicycles with flyers that ostensibly were bicycle-theft reminders. One type featured an image of a U-lock, another showed severe peepers:
Though the message on both flyers was the same—and wasn’t even about garbage—folks who received the eyes showed a marked decrease in littering. In fact, they were two-thirds less likely to toss the flyers on the ground; about 5 percent did so, compared to nearly 16 percent of those that saw the lock. This effect seemed to hold true only when there was nobody else around, suggesting the eye images were substituting for the real, judgmental eyes of others.
Does this mean adorning plastic bottles, candy wrappers, and other products with wrathful eyeballs could clean up our streets? The researchers believe it might help, writing in their study that “designing cues of observation into packaging could be a simple but fruitful strategy for reducing littering.” Here’s more from a Newcastle press release:
Professor [Daniel] Nettle said: "Our work shows that the presence of eye images can encourage co-operative behaviour and we think this is because people feel they are being watched.
"As we care what other people think about us, we behave better and more honestly when we feel we are being observed.
"This is reinforced by our results as we show that we didn't need to include a message about littering, people know it is antisocial so it was enough to have an image of the eyes."…
The study is based on the theory of “nudge psychology” which suggests that people may behave better if the best option in a given situation is highlighted for them, but all other options are still left open, so the person isn't forced into one particular action. In effect you “nudge” people into doing the right thing.