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Placebo Accountability: How often do you talk to your accountability partner?

Last Updated: July 27, 2021

Luke Gilkerson

Luke Gilkerson has a BA in Philosophy and Religious Studies and an MA in Religion. He is the author of Coming Clean: Overcoming Lust Through Biblical Accountability and The Talk: 7 Lessons to Introduce Your Child to Biblical Sexuality. Luke and his wife Trisha blog at IntoxicatedOnLife.com

I always feel like somebody’s watching me,
And I have no privacy? (oh oh oh)
– Rockwell –

You’re familiar with the placebo effect, right? In medical experiments, there is often a control group that receives a “placebo,” a dummy medicine or treatment. At times, those who receive the placebo report improvement in their health. The improvements are not due to the medicine (the treatment is not real) but due instead to the power of suggestion. The patients believe they are being treated and thus believe they are getting better. This is called the placebo effect.

As it turns out, there is also a placebo effect when it comes to accountability: the belief I could be watched, whether I am or not, changes the way I behave.

Sander van der Linden of the London School of Economics and Political Science recently published an article highlighting this principle. He cites a number studies:

  • A few years ago, an article was published in Human Nature showing how those who participate in economic computer games behave differently when they believe they are being watched by a robot. They used a robot named Kismet invented at MIT which had human-looking eyes. The robot was visible on their screen while the game was being played. Many times, participants who saw the robot made less self-centered choices.
  • Over the course of a month, a group of researchers at Newcastle University recently observed the littering behavior of students in the university cafeteria. Posters displaying pictures of staring human eyes were hung at eye-level around the cafeteria. Researchers concluded people were twice as likely to clean up after themselves when the eye-posters were present.

I find this research interesting for Covenant Eyes users for a couple reasons. I’d love to get your thoughts.

  1. From a software end: Covenant Eyes uses an “eye” icon which appears in the system tray on a person’s desktop. While this eye is obviously “cartoony” and lacks a degree of realism, I wonder whether its presence subconsciously serves as a deterrent.
  2. From a relationship end: What is the primary benefit people are looking for when they use Covenant Eyes? Do they want a closer relationship with their accountability partner(s)? Do they want to be able to have more informed discussions with others about how they use or shouldn’t use the Internet? Or is it more for the placebo effect: Do they just want the social restraint of “someone might be watching me” when temptations arise?
  • Comments on: Placebo Accountability: How often do you talk to your accountability partner?
    1. Chad Bridgeford on

      I think this effect is true and does apply to computer use. Even if it isn’t the eye in the task bar, it is the thought that might have to explain something questionable to your accountability partner. When I first signed up for the service I was having a friend receive my reports and I didn’t want to see what a report looked at so I wouldn’t know with how much detail he could see what I had been looking at. There’d were a lot of times I didn’t even look at something I knew wasn’t improper just because I didn’t know what he would think. He eventually signed up as well and now I get his reports and he has admitted that he watches what sites he views more closely as well.

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        @Chad – We hear a lot of testimonies just like this. I know many guys who have started using Covenant Eyes and later said they never even realized how many times they were tempted to go to questionable places. I’m not just talking about pornography. I’m talking about anything improper. It is amazing how just knowing you are being watched can make a difference.

    2. Kathy Temperton on

      My husband will not put covenant eyes back on his computer. He says the program messed up his computer and he doesn’t have the time to put it back on. Its been 7 months since the program has been off. I can tell you it offers a great piece of mind to me when its on. I think the icon angered him, like he was being watched. Right now our relationship isn’t so great. I’m so over this.

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        @Kathy – Sorry to hear about your husband’s bad experience with the program. We continue to make updates, so if he wants to give it a try, now would be a great time. Plus, he can always do any troubleshooting with the folks in our call center. They can usually deal with most technical issues and problems.

        As for the icon angering him, I can honestly say I’ve not heard that reaction before, but I’m sorry to hear that. For some, the feeling of “being watched” is closely tied to the idea of judgmentalism. For some, the whole idea of being accountable to someone else sounds like a punishment (i.e. You can’t be trusted, so we’re watching you). But in our experience, we have found the opposite to be true: when people voluntarily choose to be accountable to others, it is because they desire something better for themselves. They desire others to check in on them because they know how much easier it is to establish good habits.

        I’m curious: who was your husband’s accountability partner? Did he have more than one?

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