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 History & Literature


Christmas (also called X-mas), on the 25th of December, is the religious celebration day of Jesus Christ’s birth. It is a beloved holiday that is usually the biggest in the year for many countries. Every year on Christmas Eve (24th), children put out cookies and milk, and with a resolution that they will not sleep they await Christmas’ undying star, Santa Claus.
But as soon as they fall asleep, Santa arrives in a sleigh pulled by reindeers, comes down the chimney and unloads many presents (only to “nice” kids) under an already-decorated tree. When the 25th comes around, children run to open their presents and celebrate. On this day, most stores close to go into a festive mood. In the evening, the whole family gathers for a feast and celebrates this joyous day.

As with most holidays, Christmas has many interesting stories tied to it.

Firstly, is the 25th of December really Jesus’ birthday? This question has plagued scholars since the 18th century, as the Bible has no record of this. In fact, historic records (old texts, the Bible etc.), scientific data (astronomy etc.) and logic all show that there is a lack of evidence for Christmas actually being the day Jesus was born. Instead, it is suggested that Jesus was born in spring, more specifically the 25th of March. Interestingly, this is celebrated as Annunciation in Christianity, the day when Jesus was allegedly conceived by the Virgin Mary. So which story is correct? This may be linked to the next story.

Secondly, the 25th of December is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Because of this, many Pagan holidays coincide around this time. For example, ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia between the 17th and 23rd, to honour the god of agriculture, Saturn (a fun fact is that there is a tradition where they brought a tree inside the house for this day, which is the roots of the modern Christmas tree). Also, later in Rome’s history, the official sun god, Sol Invictus, was honoured on the 25th of December. Many historians hypothesise that when Christianity first developed, it absorbed many of its preceding religions’ holidays, thus giving birth to Christmas.

Lastly, a story about Santa Claus. Santa Claus is based on the Dutch Saint Nicholas, but is also influenced by many other traditional holiday figures, such as Odin from Norse mythologies (who gave gifts to children who put out treats for his eight-legged horse on Christmas day). What is peculiar is the reason Santa wears red. Many people believe that the “red and white outfit” was a product of Coca-Cola’s advertising in the early 20th century, making Santa wear the company colours. However, this theory has some errors. Most importantly, there are many illustrations from before 1925 (when Santa first featured in Coke advertisements) where Santa is portrayed in his plump, bearded form clad in red clothes with a large belt, exactly like the modern Santa. But as there were many other portrayals of Santa back then (e.g. green clothes, skinny etc.), it can be safely said that Coca-Cola’s aggressive advertising and explosive popularity played a vital role in cementing the image of the Santa that we know and love now.

Santa is also known as children’s last innocence. This is because it is something that can only be found in the hearts of children who pray every Christmas to this mythical man to receive a present. Unfortunately, as they grow and learn science and facts (about their parents being the provider) their innocent beliefs turn to ashes. Because of this, some parents like to dress up as Santa to deepen the children’s faith in him, while some never allow the faith to be born in the first place. What is amusing is that in some European countries such as Poland, the idea of Santa Claus is taken quite seriously. Every adult (especially adults and teachers) take strict care not to crush this dream until the age of 4 or 5, almost religiously.

As a final note, some people note that there are some strange connections between Santa and communism: red, large beard, providing only to “nice children”, working the elves in a factory… may whoever reads this decide that fact for themselves.