Talking to Our Selves

If you’ve worked in an office, you’re probably familiar with “honor box” coffee service. Everyone helps themselves to stewed coffee, adds to the lounge’s growing filth, and deposits a nominal sum in the honor box, with the accumulated proceeds being used to replenish supplies. Notoriously, this system often devolves into a tragedy of the commons, where too many people drink without paying. Unless some philanthropic soul goes out of pocket to cover freeriders, the enterprise goes in the red, and everyone’s back to extortionate prices at the cafe.

Fortunately, the tragedy of the honor box may be readily ameliorated; if images of eyes are placed prominently near the coffee service, deposits increase. Or so Bateson and her colleagues (2006) found: the take in a Psychology Department’s honor box (computed by amount contributed per liter of milk consumed) was nearly three times as large when the posted payment instructions were augmented with an image of eyes as when they were augmented with an image of flowers.

Fig. 1: The Eyes Have It: honor box contributions higher with eyes than with flowers (Pounds paid per liter of milk consumed as a function of week and image type; from Bateson et al. 2006: 413)
Fig. 1: The Eyes Have It: honor box contributions higher with eyes than with flowers (Pounds paid per liter of milk consumed as a function of week and image type; from Bateson et al. 2006: 413)

On the standard interpretation, the eyes remind people that they may be seen – not so easy to stiff the honor box in front of a disapproving colleague – and pay a reputational cost for freeriding. Since human beings are social organisms sensitive to reputational considerations, they may thereby be moved to donate.

Participants in such studies are not typically debriefed, so we don’t know for sure what they were thinking. But the most likely reading is that people are, in a sense, not thinking much of anything. That is, the Watching Eyes Effect is supposed to involve an unconscious, effortless, processing, rather than conscious, concerted calculation; the eyes are hypothesized to influence behavior without those influenced being aware.

If people aren’t typically aware of the Watching Eyes Effect when they’re being affected by it, what might they think, if they found out afterwards? A cheapskate with a policy of freeriding might feel a little resentful; he’s been made to do something he doesn’t judge to be sensible. A more upright sort might think she’s done the right thing, but not for the right reasons; doing it because you’re watched is not the same thing as doing it because it’s decent, honest, or fair. Those who favor fair play only when it burnishes their reputation might also have qualms, since Watching Eyes may influence people in conditions conducive to anonymity (e.g., Haley and Fessler 2005: 250). In none of these cases does “I did it because of the eye spots,” sound like a compelling rationale.

The Watching Eyes Effect is part of a large family of studies identifying influences on behavior that are both unconscious and unexpected.  In sum: you may not know what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it, and if you did know, you might not like it. Evidently, the subversive unconscious is everywhere at work (though these workings may be more absurd than Oedipal). Should you take this prospect seriously, you ought begin to worry about who — or what — is running your show.

This anxiety, I argue in Talking to Our Selves (Oxford 2015), instigates skeptical uncertainty about morally responsible agency. An extensive experimental literature, together with the large family of “dual process” theories attempting to make sense of it, suggests the widespread presence of “incongruent parallel processing” where two (or more) cognitive systems (with “cognitive” capaciously construed) issue in divergent outputs with regards the  same object – as, under the descriptions I offered, is the case with the Watching Eyes Effect.   This incongruence raises the prospect of “defeaters” for morally responsible agency, where the causes of a behavior (namely, those causal factors that appropriately figure in a well formed psychological explanation of a behavior) would not be counted by the actor as reasons for that behavior. Where defeaters obtain, I argue, agency is imperiled, so in those cases where we cannot confidently rule out the presence of defeaters, the attribution of agency is not warranted. Thus, I claim, skepticism about agency threatens.

Talking to Our Selves is an attempt to ameliorate this skeptical threat. To do so, I eventually depart from philosophically orthodox reflectivisms, which locate the exercise of agency in self-conscious deliberation informed by accurate self-awareness, and individualisms, which suppose that the exercise of agency is an achievement that people are able to realize “on their own” (as intimated by many deployments of “autonomy”). Against reflectivism, I insist that reflection is not necessary for, and may at times impede, the exercise of agency, while self-ignorance need not impede, and may at times facilitate, the exercise of agency. Against individualism, I advocate collaborativism about agency, which understands individual exercises of agency as products of ongoing social interaction.

Working all this out, of course, makes a rather intricate and unwieldy undertaking. Somebody should write a book! Hopefully, some of you will read it.


Bateson, M., Nettle, D., and Roberts, G. 2006. “Cues of Being Watched Enhance Cooperation in a Real-World Setting.” Biology Letters 2: 412-14.

Haley, K., and Fessler, D.M.T. 2005. “Nobody’s Watching? Subtle Cues Affect Generosity in an Anonymous Economic Game.” Evolution and Human Behavior 26: 245-56.



  1. I’ve already read about half of the book, and am quite enjoying it . Although I think there is a meaningful role for reflection in our lives (and I don’t think you disagree), the book is quite convincing that reflective or self-conscious deliberation is necessary for agency. It surprising how unreflective (har har) a few philosophers have been on this issue.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Ted.

      AS you suggest, I expect there are plausible intermediate positions between familiar reflectivisms and my “anti-reflectivism.”

      As is often the case, these intermediates (“quasi-reflectivisms”?) may have advantages over the more extreme poles.

      Of course, there’s potential for food fights over whether the intermediates represent defenses or capitulations . . . . .

  2. Anne Jacobson

    John, I was delighted to see your book, maybe especially after our exchange last week. I’m just starting to read it, but I expect to find it very congenial, and very helpful.
    I am wondering about the idea that the watchful eyes effect is supposed to be unconscious. Is it just that people often seem not to have noticed the eyes and/or their influence? I also am puzzled by implicit biases. Are we – or many of us – really so opaque to ourselves?
    There do seem to be a number of things that might account for a breakdown between influence and report of influence without there being exactly lack of awarness. . When one hears about people with Alexithymia who are really unaware of their emotions, they often seem much more odd that the casual person in the street, or lounge, or whatever.
    A relevant case: reading about emotional mirroring probably gave me a vocabulary that eventually made day to day mirroring more noticeable. But I don’t think I was unconscious before hand.

    • Hi Anne. Great to see you last week!

      Alexithymia makes an interesting case here. I take it your thought is that individuals so characterized (a) have extensive emotional self ignorance, and (b) present as quite atypical compared to individuals not so characterized, suggesting that such extensive emotional self-ignorance can’t be the usual case.

      I don’t know much of anything about Alexthymia, but a bit of googling suggests its characterization is a little uncertain (e.g., does it involve emotional self-ignorance or a lack of emotional differentiation?), and there may be complications of “co-morbidity.” So I’m afraid I should punt on this challenge.

      However, my argument does not posit anything like *total* self-ignorance. I suggest that people not infrequently suffer “practically relevant self-ignorance” — roughly, ignorance the amelioration of which would cause the subject to judge or behave differently (or at least attempt to do so). This, I claim, is enough to raise unsettling questions about agency, even if people typically enjoy a substantial measure of accurate self-awareness.

      On the Watching Eyes Effect, good question. My sense of the literature is that the effect is assumed, rather than demonstrated, to proceed unconsciously. We are trying to design experiments that will put this assumption to the test, but it’s proving a bit tricky.

  3. Anne Jacobson

    John, thanks for your response. Actually, i think my thought about Alexithymia wasn’t quite so dependent on its being wide-spread as it was on the consequnces of being unaware at a particular instant. But in any case, lack of awareness appears to come in degrees, I have reminded myself. My colleague, Bruno Breitmeyer, is one of the developers of masking studies in vision, and he has been mapping the development of visual awareness in the visual system. He’s discovered, for example, that at the earliest stages of processing colors prime on the basis of physical similarity. Thus white will prime for green. Later priming follows psychological similarities.

    I would guess that with the eyes you might be in the difficult area where attention is playing a significant role. But I’m not sure why lack of awareness would be necessary for the demonstrated effect, though it seems very intereSting that the effect occurs when one isn’t aware.

    In any case, I am very glad you have taken on action. Let me ask you about the supposed sense of agency so many philosophers seem to have. I’d assume you at least don’t think it accompanies every action.

  4. John Doris

    I hold what I take to be the philosophically conventional view that “agent experiences” are ubiquitous, though their exact content is uncertain, and both content of experience and propensity to have the experience likely vary across both individuals and cultures.

    The psychopathology literature makes a suggestive contrast. Abnormalities in action perception, as in the infamous “puppet delusion,” are a symptom of schizophrenia. Less dramatically (and perhaps more instructively), failure to experience what psychologists term “internal locus of control” appears to be associated with psychiatric distress in a variety of cultures. Could the propensity to agent experience be associated with well-being?

    Where I perhaps depart convention is in arguing, based on the confabulation literature, that agent experiences may very often be misleading; people may frequently experience things as “full blooded actions” that are in fact not.

  5. I look forward to reading your book over the summer, John. It will be my reward after I finish grading!
    Regarding the “honor box coffee service”: it strikes me that this is a context where people often prospectively rationalize their bad behavior. The thought, “I don’t have the right change now, but I’ll put in double the money next time” is admittedly familiar. Seeing the eyes may serve as a kind of rationalization-blocker, preventing people from buying their own flimsy self-justifications.

    • John Doris

      Hi Jason! I hope you have some activities planned for summer that are more diverting than reading my book. 😉

      Your proposed description of the honor box case seems to me apt (though I am unencumbered by evidence): a “rationalizing defector” may be a more likely sort than the “all -in defector” I imagined. If so, this would help explain why the fairly subtle manipulation might at times have a fairly potent effect.

      • Hey John,

        I, too, am unencumbered by evidence. I wonder if creative types are more likely fail to contribute because they are better at rationalizing. I have in mind Ariely’s observation in _The Honest Truth About Dishonesty_:
        “Put simply, the link between creativity and dishonesty seems related to the ability to tell ourselves stories about how we are doing the right thing, even when we are not. The more creative we are, the more we are able to come up with good stories that help justify our selfish interests.” (197)

        • John Doris

          Or maybe the creative are better able to grock the sometimes intricate and inobvious demands of morality! 😉

          Does DA present evidence for his view?

          • Yes, he presents five experiments.

            Check out Gino and Ariely, “The Dark Side of Creativity: Original Thinkers Can Be More Dishonest” in Attitudes and Social Cognition . Some quick googling will get you the pdf.

            Ariely himself claims to be atypical: very creative and scrupulously honest.

  6. Anne Jacobson

    John, I don’t know that you suggest it, but I am unsure of the inference from “there are failures of any sense of agency” to “there is a sense of agency worth investigating as something like a psychological kind.” My reluctance is Wittgensteinian: we should be very careful about reading ‘mental’ ontology off of language.

    • John Doris

      I quite agree that the phenomena I gesture at with “agent experiences” are likely to be strongly heterogeneous (What the heck: see LW on games.) I’m pretty sure nothing I argue for requires uniting the diversity in a psychological kind. I do think some of these experiences are interestingly in the vicinity of philosophical talk about agency, and I also think people are prone to reference agency talk when they rationalize their behavior. So this is a case where the philosophical ruminations may have everyday resonance, though as I intimated above, I think the contents of the relevant “folk beliefs” are incompletely understood, particularly with regards their connexions to theoretical issues that interest philosophers, like compatibilism and incompatibilism.

  7. Anne Jacobson

    PS. That is, language may give us a single term for a very heterogeneous class, among other things.

    BTW, I was very impressed by the PNP students. Did I say that already? Well, it is worth repeating. I had some long conversations. They do seem to have a strong sense of continuity between philosophy, psychology and neuroscience. I had a sense of philosophy in its proper home.

  8. Anne Jacobson

    Jason, if I may butt in, I wonder if Ariely’s claims would have much cultural or historial stretch.

    Would the Saints and monks have been able to be creative and truthful.? Joan of Arc had a lot of her own stories going, but she doesn’t seem to have minced words. In fact, one might think of religious mystics as very creative? But very dedicated to truth about ordinary life?

  9. Anne Jacobson

    My sense is that while philosophers may have different versions of what is – or gives rise to – a sense of agency, mostly each thinks it is a single unified phenomenon. See Pacherie’s piece on the web forthcoming in Gallagher’s OUP collection.
    I am mystified by this.
    In some ways my mystification is like that in the following: for a brief time about two years ago I was taking a medication that caused me to collapse. With no warning. One minute I’d be striding across the street and the next I’d be on the ground. Similarly, though most of us have a sense of being upright, I suppose, i don’t know that we have any sense, in normal, sober life, of keeping ourselves upright.
    The analogy is very imperfect, but the collapsing example is comparable to what seems to me a gap in my phenomenology of action, and leaves a mild suspicion that the sense of agency others claim might be trading on proprioception in some funny way.

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