People under surveillance are more likely to condemn "bad behavior" in others

Social scientists have long known that people manage their reputations by modifying their behavior in public. But new research out of Australia now shows that this tendency to "act appropriately" extends beyond our actions and into our moral judgments.

When people believe they are being watched, they become more judgmental of others' behavior. Especially if they believe others are acting outside social norms or morals. Will our surveillance societies create a generation of moralists?

People have recognized the power of a perceived gaze for hundreds, if not thousands of years; in the 18th century, English social theorist Jeremy Bentham designed the Panopticon, a prison compound designed to allow a single guard to observe all the prisoners without the prisoners being able to discern if they are being watched; the 20th century saw the introduction of CCTV, a surveillance technology that many claim has "imprisoned" even innocent civilians in a modern day version of the panopticon; and let's not even get into the behavior-modifying implications of an all-seeing god.

On the scientific front, many empirical studies have demonstrated that people tend to be more generous and cooperative when they know that they are being observed by others.

Until now, however, studies like the ones linked to above have neglected to address the effect of perceived observation on moral judgments. Now, Pierrick Bourrat from the University of Sydney – together with colleagues Nicolas Baumard from the University of Pennsylvania and Ryan McKay from the University of London – has shown that people are more likely to condemn the "bad" behavior of others if they sense that they are being observed.

That sense – the feeling that one is being watched – is triggered by researchers using something called "surveillance cues." Perhaps the most interesting thing about Bourrat's study is just how subtle his chosen surveillance cues are. Bourrat describes the testing methods of the study:

People under surveillance are more likely to condemn "bad behavior" in others

[We] presented students at the Campus Universitaire de Jussieu in Paris with stories of two moral transgressions, keeping the money found in a lost wallet and faking a résumé. For some participants, the scenarios were accompanied by an image of a pair of eyes, for others the scenarios were accompanied by an image of flowers. Those given the version with the eyes rated the actions as less morally acceptable than those who saw the flowers.

Above are the two pictures used in the study. Amazingly, the median "moral acceptability" score for each vignette was significantly lower for people who were exposed to surveillance cues (the picture of the eyes).

Bourrat explains this effect via two possibilities. The first is that the surveillance cues "actually affected [the participants'] perception of moral violations, perhaps by activating their awareness of internalized moral norms." The second is that an image of a pair of eyes "matches the input conditions for evolved mental mechanisms that detect when one's behavior is observed."

What is interesting about Bourrat's second explanation is that this evolved reputation-maintenance mechanism may be activated subconsciously. This raises important questions about our susceptibility to manipulation by an entity capable of toying with the part of our brain that is inaccessible to the conscious mind, but nevertheless affects behavior and emotions.

Research via Evolutionary Psychology

Top illustration by Solvod/Shutterstock