Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Watching You

What drives our morality? Philosophers have argued and pondered for millennia where our sense of selflessness, altruism and honesty come from. Are we inherently good or evil? Do we only help others when it benefits us? How can we motivate people to act more morally?

One interesting research reveals a startling truth about our morality.

In 2006, psychologist Melissa Bateson published a research where she experimented with eyes. Their university tea room had an honour-based coffee and tea system, where you pay the price of the beverage into a box. Because there was no one keeping guard over the box, you could choose to cheat the system by taking a free drink without paying. Bateson wanted to see if she could influence how often people paid by making a simple alteration to the notice banner.

The notice banner had the prices for tea, coffee and milk. Bateson decided to add an image above the prices: a pair of eyes, or flowers. She would alternate the image used week by week, then recorded the total earnings and the number of drinks purchased. She would use different flowers and different eyes from various genders, ethnicities and expressions, but the eyes all had something in common: they stared directly at you.

The results were fascinating: on weeks where the notice banner included pictures of eyes, people paid 2.76 times as much compared to the flower weeks.

Turns out, seeing a depiction of eyes makes us more honest and cheat less. The same effect has been seen when using cartoons or drawings of eyes, resulting in less littering, more donations, less crime and overall more pro-social behaviours. This is called the watching-eye effect.

Why do harmless pictures of eyes make us want to do good?

The effect is likely to be an unconscious, automatic reaction. Our brains are remarkably sensitive to eyes and gaze – which is why we can easily spot people staring at us and why we are so good at reading emotions from eyes.

Furthermore, we are social animals and thus have evolved to show pro-social behaviours so that we fit into the group and live together harmoniously.

This means that when we see even a symbol of an eye, our brain automatically thinks that we are being watched by someone, pushing us to act morally to avoid punishment or embarrassment. This suggests that our desire to preserve our social reputation plays a significant role in our morality (but by no means the only factor).

The other thing to consider is that as we grow up, we are continuously taught that we are being watched, to dissuade us from bad behaviour. God will send you to hell, Santa Claus will put you on the naughty list and Big Brother will send you to prison. All of these stories and cultural beliefs fuel our subconscious paranoia of being watched and fear of consequences.

So if your lunch keeps getting stolen from the fridge, try sending a message by putting a photo of eyes on it to see if it deters your coworkers.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


A common character found in psychological thrillers are those who seem to have no regard for the well-being of others, disobey social rules and act violently for seemingly no reason. They show no remorse or empathy and can be very intelligent, charming and high-functioning (although not typically). We describe these people as psychopaths, or sometimes sociopaths. To over-simplify it, a psychopath essentially has no moral conscience and do not believe in the social contract.

The terms psychopath and sociopath are often used interchangeably, but in modern psychiatry, they both fall under the diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). ASPD patients tend to have a long history of criminal charges, often relating to violence, chronic lying and fraud, drug use and other law-breaking actions. These characteristics may show from early childhood, with the typical psychopathic child being described as one murdering animals and being violent towards other kids. These children are often diagnosed with another disorder called conduct disorder.

Psychopaths are very popular in movies and TV shows due to their unpredictable nature, wanton violence and maniacal behaviour inflicting terror into the audience’s hearts. After all, who wouldn’t be afraid of a remorseless killer who finds enjoyment from others’ suffering? Unfortunately, many movies distort the image of the psychopath and blend in various other mental health disorders such as psychosis into the character. Sometimes psychopaths are even sensationalised, being described as an antihero.

It is true that many serial killers turn out to be psychopaths, but physical violence is not necessarily a feature of all psychopaths. A subset of “successful” psychopaths differentiate themselves by being less physically violent, appear to follow the social norm and succeed in challenging fields such as business, finances, law or even medicine. However, they will also have a pervasive disregard for others and will only care about having their way. Their lack of empathy allows them to act immorally, stabbing people in the back and lying, cheating and manipulating their way to the top. It is not some sick sexual perversion or power trips that motivate psychopaths, but impulsivity, egocentricity and gratification. To psychopaths, the aim of the game is to win, no matter the cost.

This makes you wonder. How many people around you are secretly a psychopath – one who would take advantage of you without a shred of guilt? How many people around you hide behind the mask of sanity?

(NB: Just putting it out there, Sherlock Holmes is neither a psychopath nor a sociopath. If anything he probably has an autism spectrum disorder like Asperger’s syndrome.)

Posted in Philosophy

Thief And Murderer

Imagine that you have been incarcerated for committing a crime. You get to choose one of the prisoners as your roommate, but your choice is limited to a thief and a murderer. Who would you trust more?

Most people would consider the thief’s crimes to be lighter and choose him without a doubt. They would rather live with someone who stole some jewellery than some beast that killed another human being.

But if you think about it in depth, you may come to the opposite conclusion. Stealing is often a meticulous and calculated crime that involves logical planning, but murder is more often a crime of passion that is spontaneous (of course the person may be a psychopath). Ergo, statistically speaking thieves tend to be more predisposed to a criminal nature than murderers. A thief will easily repeat their crime, whereas those who have murdered often do not repeat it. Furthermore, thieves tend to target people they do not know, where as murderers often kill someone that they know. Statistically, you are more likely to die in the hands of someone you know well than a stranger.

Therefore, it just might be that sharing a room with a murderer is preferable to a thief (maybe the murderer will not steal all your secret food). This would definitely be the case if the “murderer” was actually framed like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. Of course, the wiser choice still is to not commit the crime in the first place so you do not end up in prison.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

How To Feign Death

Usually to check if a person is dead, one checks their pulse and breathing. If you want to fake your death properly, you must be able to stop both of these. You can easily hold your breath, but how can one stop their own heart? The answer lies in a ball.

If you wedge a tennis ball, squash ball, baseball or any small but firm ball in each of your armpits and squeeze tightly, the pulse at your wrist will disappear. This pulse is the radial pulse, and the radial artery is a branch of the brachial artery further up the arm. If a ball is squeezed in the armpit, it compresses the brachial artery, stopping the blood flow to the radial artery and obliterating the radial pulse. Most people who are not medical professionals tend to use the radial pulse for taking a pulse, so this method can be used to make it look like you do not have a pulse. But as this trick only causes the radial pulse to disappear, it is ineffective if the other person takes the pulse at another site such as the carotid artery or femoral artery. However, if you can control the situation and the person checking to see if you are alive is not a doctor or nurse, then it is quite a useful trick to use.

Posted in Philosophy

Prisoner’s Dilemma

The prisoner’s dilemma is a famous example of how game theory functions. It predicts the behaviour of two people when forced to cooperate. The story goes as follows:

Two accomplices in crime are arrested by the police. They are interrogated in separate rooms. As the police have insufficient information, they offer a deal to each prisoner to confess that the two committed a crime (or deny). The deal is:

  • If you confess and your partner denies taking part in the crime, you go free and your partner will serve ten years (and vice versa).
  • If you both confess you will go to prison for four years each.
  • If you both deny taking part in the crime, you both go to prison for two years.

Assuming the prisoners act rationally (i.e. for their best interest and minimising their jail time), the prisoner will obviously choose the “confess” option as this is hypothetically the best choice (minimum time = 0 years, compared to only 2 years minimum for denying). However, because both prisoners are thinking this, the result is almost always that both confess and end up with four years each. Therefore, because human beings are unable to trust another human being enough, people always end up acting irrationally (benefit not maximised).
If the two had been trusting (assuming the other would deny too) and cooperated, both would have served half the time. But people always assume (correctly) that the other person will betray them for their selfish gain and this win-win result is unattainable.

But what if the other prisoner was yourself? Let us assume that the prisoner’s dilemma game was played by you and an exact copy of you. A copy that thinks like you, acts like you and identical to you in every single way. Can you trust yourself? Do you trust yourself enough to deny the crime, when it is entirely possible that he or she rats you out to walk free while you suffer for 10 years? How do you know that he loves you more than himself? 

Your greatest enemy is you.

Posted in History & Literature

Crime And Punishment

Nullum crimen, nulla poena sine praevia lege poenali. 
No crime or punishment without a previous penal law. 

This is the backbone of modern criminal law, stating that the law defines what a crime is, and without the law, there can be no crime. Ergo, a crime in the past cannot be punished with the law of the present.

The principle has allowed for many loopholes where past crimes went unpunished as they were not subjected to new laws. An example is The Homicide Act of 1957 in English law, which never gave a statutory definition of murder. This led to no less than six appeals challenging the definition, using it as a defence.
It also protects criminals by allowing them to use a defence (e.g. provocation) even after it is outlawed, as long as the crime was committed before the law came in place.

If Wonderland’s legal system was based around nullum crimen, nulla poena sine lege, then the King of Hearts would not have been able to impose his Rule #42: “all persons more than a mile high must leave the court immediately”, as he created the rule after Alice ate the mushrooms and grew in size.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Why And How

When an obstacle blocks the way, the first response a person shows is thinking “Why did this happen? Whose fault is it?”. A person looks for the person responsible and ponders what appropriate punishment should be given.
In an identical scenario, an ant first thinks “How, and with whose help, can I solve this problem?”.
In the ant world, there is no concept of “crime”.

It is obvious that there is a great gap between people who ask themselves “Why didn’t this work?” and those that ask “How can I make it work?”.
In modern times, the world is dominated by people who ask “why”. However, in the future a day will come when the world is ruled by those that ask “how”.

(from The Encyclopaedia of Relative and Absolute Knowledge by Bernard Werber)