Eye-opening crime crackdown

19 September 2006

We're more honest when we think someone's watching, behaviour experts revealed recently. Now, armed with this insight, police are trying a new technique to combat crime. By putting posters of watchful eyes in crime hot spots, they hope to make would-be crooks think twice.

Antenna investigates...

Image: Che, commons.wikimedia.org

West Midlands Police have begun an unusual new campaign called Operation Momentum to tackle problems such as vehicle crime and burglary. Officers hope plastering posters of menacing eyes will keep crime in check. It might sound like a bit of a long shot, but the idea's got real research to back it up.
Scientists think how we act in some situations depends on whether we think we're being watched or not. So earlier this year, behaviour experts at Newcastle University put the theory to the test - in the university coffee room.

Staring eyes like these seem to make people behave more honestly.

Image: West Midlands Police Press and PR Department

Researcher Melissa Bateson found that people were more prepared to dig cash out of their pockets when they were under the gaze of a picture of a pair of eyes, instead of a picture of flowers. People coughed up almost 3 times as much cash into a donation box when they were being 'watched'.
'Although the eyes were just a picture, they must've given people the feeling that they were being watched. It's in our interests to behave more cooperatively when people are watching, because if people see us as good people they will treat us better in the future.'
Melissa Bateson, human behaviour expert, Newcastle University

Melissa Bateson, human behaviour expert, Newcastle University

Image: North News & Pictures

Reading about the research, West Midlands Police thought a similar trick might help them cut crime.
'We have been inspired by Dr Bateson's research and liked the idea that eyes peering down at thieves in crime hot spots could intimidate them into moving on rather than committing crime.'
Sue Southern, Chief Inspector, West Midlands Police

Sue Southern, Chief Inspector, West Midlands Police

Image: West Midlands Police Press and PR Department

'By building this latest research into our new campaign to fight crime, called Operation Momentum, we hope it will give us that extra edge in making our streets safer.'
Sue Southern
Over the next few months, the police will be looking at crime figures to see whether the posters have had any effect. If they are successful, glaring pairs of eyes could be peering out from all over the place.

Image: Freefoto.com

Image: Freefoto.com

The police campaign is an exciting development for the scientists:
'We did the study just because we were interested in understanding human behaviour but it's really exciting that within a month our findings are being applied to crime prevention.'
Melissa Bateson
'Our brains are programmed to respond to eyes and faces whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Our research suggests that people are less likely to be selfish if they feel they are being watched, which has huge implications for real life.
'Although our findings were in relation to an honesty box, I think they could have wide-ranging applications for tackling antisocial behaviour. For example, they could be applied to warnings about speed cameras. Drivers would react much more quickly and positively to natural stimuli such as eyes and faces.'
Melissa Bateson

Image: Freefoto.com

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