Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Who's watching you?

The eyes in this totem pole are watching you.

Research shows that humans switch from selfish to unselfish behavior when they are watched. Do you?

A picture of a set of eyes on a computer screen can trigger the switch in people. Even images of eyes on a donation collection box encouraged people to be unselfish, because people put more money in the collection box with the eyes than they did when a flower symbol was on the box.

Manfred Milinski and Bettina Rockenback write in Science that people act nicer when they are being watched because they are rewarded for good behavior. They also share other research that shows that this response of behaving well when watched is somehow “hard-wired” into humans and people respond this way unconsciously, or without realizing it.

It is not just humans that act unselfish when they are being watched by eyes. A fish called the cleaning wrasse grooms other fish. When other fish are around, it is gentler when it grooms fish, researchers show. When no one else is around, though, the wrasse fish bites chunks from the fish it is supposed to be grooming.

The researchers say that humans and animals watch each other so they know how to act later, when they meet.

They also suggest that perhaps others want us to be good and so they make us feel watched. This could be what is behind the totem pole with its eyes always watching everyone.

This study appears in the 27 July issue of the journal Science.