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.
- 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.
- 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?