A new study finds that paper printed with a specific image lessened the odds of littering by two-thirds.
In an experiment conducted at the Centre for Behaviour and Evolution at Newcastle University in the UK, two professors revealed a fascinating quirk of human psychology. And the world could be a tidier place because of it.
The researchers, Professor Melissa Bateson and Professor Daniel Nettle, printed two leaflets. One included a prominent image of stern eyes, the other was the same but with the eyes obscured. Although there was no mention of littering on the leaflets – the leaflets were warning students to lock their bikes – the leaflets with eyes were littered significantly less than ones that weren’t “watching.”
How significant? 4.7 percent of people dropped the leaflet with eyes compared to 15.6 percent of the control leaflets.
"Our work shows that the presence of eye images can encourage co-operative behavior and we think this is because people feel they are being watched,” says Nettle.
"As we care what other people think about us, we behave better and more honestly when we feel we are being observed,” she adds. “This is reinforced by our results as we show that we didn't need to include a message about littering, people know it is antisocial so it was enough to have an image of the eyes."
The work of the experiment is based on the idea of “nudge psychology,” a theory that people behave better when the best option, in whatever situation, is presented to them, but they still have a choice of other options as well. By removing the idea of being forced into something, the theory goes, people will often choose to do the “right” thing.
The researchers note that this could be a boon in fighting fast-food litter.
"In the fight against anti-social littering, this study could be a real help. Fast food retailers might want to think about using it on packaging to discourage people discarding the wrappers,” says Bateson. “The flip side is, for those handing out leaflets, it could help people take in the messages are they are less likely to throw away a flyer with eyes on."
Fighting litter, one pair of printed eyes at a time.