John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
A British experiment showed that images of eyes reduced the amount of stolen bikes in certain locations by 62 percent.
Who said Big Brother's always a bad thing?
In England, researchers studying the psychology of surveillance recently discovered that putting posters of glaring eyes above bike racks seemed to ward off thieves. It was no small effect, either: In the three racks they monitored, the number of stolen cycles went down by an incredible 62 percent. There is a big caveat to their findings, though, which we'll get to in a minute.
Daniel Nettle, lead author of the new study in PLOS ONE, "Cycle Thieves, We Are Watching You," has been investigating the curiously potent effect of eyes for a while. In 2010, he found that posters of eyes reduced littering inside a university cafeteria. More recently, he helped uncover a link between eye images and charity. Confronted with a pair of peepers staring in their general direction, people dumped nearly twice as many donations into a supermarket alms box than with control images.
Nettle attributes these effects to the eyes giving people the feeling that they're being observed. In that mindset, they're more likely to engage in behaviors that are better for society. Or if you want that in psych-speak, here's how the researchers in that supermarket experiment put it: "Results are consistent with models of the evolution of prosociality through reputation-based partner choice and have potential practical beneﬁts for those involved in charitable fundraising."
In the latest probing of everyone's favorite face-orbs, Nettle and company adorned racks at their own Newcastle University with the stern visage you see above. They then logged all the reported thefts over the course of 12 months. Whereas there were 39 ripped-off bicycles the year before their intervention (memo to self: buy a Kryptonite "Fahgettaboudit" if ever enrolling in Newcastle), there were only 15 thefts during the experiment's run:
The researchers professed amazement at the influencing power of their posters – they were not just modifying small behaviors anymore like throwing coins into a box or cleaning up one's mess. "We were thus surprised to find an apparent effect on the much more serious, and presumably motivationally different, social norm violation of bicycle theft," they say.
Now, the bad part. While theft rates went down 62 percent in the experimental racks, in other places in the university it shot up by 65 percent – an almost perfect offset. It looks like the signs simply may have been displacing the crime:
Why this intervention in particular produced such a strong displacement effect – and displaced offences such a short distance - is not clear. The signs were in fixed places with a limited field of visibility, and suggested surveillance of that specific location. Thus, they may have led to the perception that moving out of sight of the signs was a sufficient response.
Still, given the obvious power of the eyes, the researchers suggest that Newcastle might crush its stolen-bike problem by putting angry eyeballs over every single rack it owns, making for a safe but supremely creepy campus.
(H/t to ETA)