For the “Observer Effect” to Occur Does It Matter Who the Observer Is?

I don’t think it matters so much who is watching us, so long as we believe we are actually being watched and that the observer has the means to punish us or enforce the law. There is certainly ample research showing that people follow rules more closely when they think they are being watched by other people (even if they aren’t actually being watched). In fact, studies have found that even images of humanlike eyes are sometimes enough to dissuade bad behavior.

My colleagues and I replicated this “observer effect” in our study—well, at least among the older children. The 8- to 9-year-olds in our study were less likely to cheat on a game when they were being observed by a real, visible adult than when they were unsupervised (the 5- to 6-year-olds were just as likely to cheat with a real observer as without). The twist in our study was that we introduced some of the children to a novel invisible person—“Princess Alice” we called her—who would be observing them during the game. Across age groups, children who believed Princess Alice was watching them were less likely to cheat than the unsupervised children. Children who were skeptical of Princess Alice, however, were less heedful.

Thus, it would seem that even thoughts about being watched by an invisible agent—be it God, closed-circuit TV, or Princess Alice—can deter rule breaking, so long as people really believe in the agent’s watchfulness and that the agent is capable of punishing or enforcing the rules. Indeed, we think this is one of the benefits religion offered early societies—a low cost means of policing!

Jared Piazza is a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the University of Kent.

Category: Q&A

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One Response

  1. Daneel says:

    But there’s ample research that show that religious people are, in fact, no more moral than non-believers. So it seems that the model of “someone’s watching” does not apply there.

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