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Here's looking at you, kid

Posted by Robin Abrahams  November 28, 2012 09:27 AM

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In Saturday's column, I advised a Letter Writer who needed to enforce a candy-related honor code at the office:
Make sure you add a picture of someone admired in your industry or cultural demographic, with the caption "So-and-So Is Watching You." People are more likely to be honest if they are being watched, an unconscious mechanism so strong that even a photocopied picture of eyes tends to increase compliance with rules and regulations. Beware of deploying such powerful social science in the workplace, though. If your in-house graphics are too good, you might wind up on the receiving end of more embarrassing confessions than you know what to do with.
There are quite a few studies documenting this phenomenon. New Scientist reported the one I was thinking of:

We all know the scene: the departmental coffee room, with the price list for tea and coffee on the wall and the "honesty box" where you pay for your drinks - or not, because no one is watching. In a finding that will have office managers everywhere scurrying for the photocopier, researchers have discovered that merely a picture of watching eyes nearly trebled the amount of money put in the box.
dn9424-1_650.jpeg You don't even need pictures of human eyes to get compliance. People who were "watched" by a photo of a cute robot gave 30% more in an anonymous "prisoners' dilemma" kind of game. 

Scientists who study the "eye effect" believe that its roots are deep in our evolutionary history. We do the right thing so that others will do right by us in turn. Knowing that we are being watched makes us behave better (the Hawthorne Effect, which has nothing to do with Chevy Chase or pre-moistened wipes); now, it appears, even the vague subconscious feeling that we are being watched is enough to make people clean up their act. 

One theory about the development of religion suggests that it is helpful for a culture to have some notion of a God or gods that can see you even when you're alone. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is simple and excellent guide to ethics; " ... even if they'll never find out, because God knows what you're up to" is an effective way of thinking about enforcement. 

By happy coincidence, Saturday's Torah portion dealt with this very notion. Jacob is trying to get his family away from his uncle-slash-father-in-law Laban. Jacob and Laban have been cheating each other like gangsters for two decades, and neither of them are exactly sure that they can trust the other one to let go and truly get out, although they're exhausted and tired of tricking each other and it's what they both want. So they make a pact and put up a little monument that from here on out, they will behave toward each other as though God is watching them:
And [it was called] Mizpah, because he said, "May the Lord watch between you and me, when we are out of sight of each other. "
Hilariously, there are necklaces called "mizpahs," that feature this verse on a disc or heart that each half of a couple can wear half of. This is meant to be a loving way of showing the emotional bond that exists even when a couple isn't physically together. Way to take a quote so far out of context that it will be an old man by the time it returns to Context and its ancient dog will wag its tail once and then die. 

I wonder how many romantic mizpah-wearing couples (like my parents!) know that the verse after this continues with the Mafia-like threat "... If you ill-treat my daughters or take other wives besides my daughters -- though no one else be about, remember, God Himself will be witness between you and me."
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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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