Getting people to do stuff, even stuff that will benefit them like diet, exercise, and proper hygiene, is often a dubious proposition. Defiance is natural in a lot of personalities. A recent study conducted by researchers from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom has found that printing a pair of actual, stern-looking eyes on a piece paper will actually deter people from littering.

"Our work shows that the presence of eye images can encourage co-operative behavior, and we think this is because people feel they are being watched," said Professor Daniel Nettle in a statement. "As we care what other people think about us, we behave better and more honestly when we feel we are being observed. This is reinforced by our results as we show that we didn't need to include a message about littering, people know it is antisocial, so it was enough to have an image of the eyes."

Nettle and his colleagues conducted two experiments in which researchers handed out leaflets that featured a pair of stern male eyes and urged cyclists to “Beware of bike thieves” and “Lock your bike.” Two different sets of leaflets were passed out: one with watching eyes and one with obscured eyes and a bike lock.

Although the leaflets made no mention of littering or even trash disposal, only 4.7 percent of people from the first experiment dropped the leaflet with watching eyes compared to 15.6 percent of those who received a leaflet with obscured eyes and a bike lock.

Researchers repeated the first experiment, but reduced the size of the watching eyes by around 89 percent. They also paid close attention to the number of people in the immediate vicinity of the person receiving the leaflet. The more people who were present, the less likely they were to litter.

“In the fight against anti-social littering, this study could be a real help,” Professor Melissa Bateson added. “Fast food retailers might want to think about using it on packaging to discourage people discarding the wrappers. The flip side is, for those handing out leaflets, it could help people take in the messages as they are less likely to throw away a flyer with eyes on it.”

This study, and many others, give weight to psychology’s “nudge theory.” The nudge theory, which is often criticized by certain psychologists, suggests that people will settle on their best option if it’s highlighted for them while keeping all other options open so as not to force their hand. As the name would suggest, the person is “nudged” into the right decision making. The research team is looking to duplicate their experiment with fast food wrappers to see if it will affect how much they eat.

Source: O’Connor A, Greenlees J, Abayomi-Cole T, Robinson R, Bateson M, Nettle D. Watching eyes on potential litter can reduce littering: evidence from two field. PeerJ. 2015.