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Behaviour not affected by feeling ‘watched’ when we know we are anonymous

06 June 2012

Title:A positive effect of flowers rather than eye images in a large-scale, cross-cultural dictator game

Authors: Nichola J. Raihani and Redouan Bshary

Journal: Proceedings of the Royal Society B


Anonymous online gamers are more likely to cooperate when shown images of flowers rather than eye images. This contrasts with previous studies, where feelings of being ‘watched’ provoked cooperation, according to a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

People often cooperate to avoid gaining a bad reputation. For example, studies have concluded that people donate less to the church fund when the collections are placed in closed bags rather than open (and therefore observable) baskets. This behaviour may be affected by the feeling of being watched.

Surprisingly, scientists at University College London have found that when anonymous participants in an online dictator game were endowed with a sum of money, which they chose to split with a powerless receiver, participants gave away more money when they saw images of flowers rather than images of eyes.

In similar previous experiments, dictators appeared to be sensitive to their reputation, affected  by subtle social cues of being watched. Studies found that people behave more cooperatively when they saw images of eyes rather than control images, such as flowers.

However, unlike in most previous studies, players interacting via this online game in this study did not appear to respond to subtle social cues of being watched. Authors Nichola Raihani and Redouan Bshary, thus suggest that eye images might only promote cooperative behaviour in relatively public settings and that people may ignore these cues when they know their behaviour is truly anonymous.

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