You're Being Watched—Be Generous!

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The Washington Post's Science Notebook reports the results of an experiment which monitored the generosity of Harvard Business students. To wit:

Researchers have long known that people tend to donate more liberally when they are being watched. The evolutionary explanation is one of self-interest: A generous act may pay off later, while selfishness can come back to bite.

But how hard-wired is that reaction? Humans are known to be acutely aware of when they are being watched—the result of an involuntary brain response to other eyeballs that offers obvious survival benefits. Is that gaze-detector so strong that even a robot can shame a person into giving more?

To find out, Terence Burnham of Harvard University and Brian Hare of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, enlisted 96 Harvard Business School students in an experiment. In each round, four students were given a set of tokens and told that they could either cash them out at the end of the exercise or donate them to the group, in which case all four would get a fraction of the tokens' value—an option that gave each person less but distributed the money more evenly. They could not talk or strategize.

The students shared about 30 percent more of their tokens when an image of Kismet, a wide-eyed robot developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, appeared on their computer screens while they decided.

The fact that donations jumped in response to a pair of eyes that obviously had no capacity to watch or judge them suggests that humans automatically behave in more socially conscious ways when the brain detects a visual pattern resembling a gaze, the team concludes in the June issue of Human Nature, released this month.

Earlier research found that people contributed more of the office coffee kitty when the price list was topped with the image of a face watching them.

So much for the admonitions in Matthew 6:1

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.

Apparently most people–motivated by the hope of reciprocal altruism–would rather count on rewards in the here-and-now than wait for them in sky bye-and-bye.

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  1. I’ll be watching these comments.

    8^)

  2. “Thus does conscience make cowards of us all.”

    With a little help from Big Brother, of course.

  3. I really don’t have much to say, but with Neu Mejican watching, I feel I have to contribute something …

  4. (^_^)

  5. The students shared about 30 percent more of their tokens when an image of Kismet, a wide-eyed robot developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, appeared on their computer screens while they decided.

    You’ve got to be kidding me. I always knew Harvard Business School students were a little soft in the head.

    This is one of those things that illustrates how my brain doesn’t work like most peoples’. I’m always watching myself. I care more about my own opinion than that of anyone else. If I’m OK with what I’m doing, what do I care if someone is watching?

  6. an experiment which monitored the generosity of Harvard Business students

    What’s the point of monitoring something that doesn’t exist?

  7. For all the snark at the biblical injunction, I would just point out that it agrees with the researchers, but it asks the reader in internalize the concept of being watched by God. The concept is that there is always someone watching your actions. Add to that the clear recognition of interested motives, and the Bible is simply arguing that you want to get clear of interested motives and instead do alms because they are the Right Thing?. In short, it’s simply telling you to get Warren’s attitude. The bit about rewards in the Biblical verse is actually all about being rewarded in the here and now, not in the sky bye-and-bye. It simply shifts the notion of what that reward is.

  8. Rockwell must be the most generous fella ever.

  9. Waitresses the world over will now be adding smiley faces to the bill. Wait a minute…I have gotten bills with smiley faces penciled in by the waitress…and I did tip generously. Conclusion: Harvard Business School researchers are no smarter than waitresses.

  10. This would also explain a lot about how people act on the Internet.

  11. Maybe we’d all behave in a more social manner if we had those nifty big-eyed cartoon cops pop up on our screens, like in Beijing.

  12. Rockwell must be the most generous fella ever.

    I’ll be watching you.

  13. PS: Please contribute to save the rainforest!

  14. I always hand over everything, because my wife is always watching…

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