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.
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.