Experimental Economics

, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 530–546 | Cite as

Do watching eyes affect charitable giving? Evidence from a field experiment

  • Mathias EkströmEmail author


The presence of implicit observation cues, such as picture of eyes, has been shown to increase generosity in dictator games, and cooperative behavior in field settings. I combine these approaches, by testing if a picture of watching eyes affects unconditional giving in a natural environment, where the recipient is a charity organization. Taken together, this study reduces the influence of three potential confounding factors in previous experiments: (i) experimenter demand effects, (ii) that the facial cue reminds subjects of a human counterpart, and (iii) a social multiplier effect. Specifically, the paper reports results from an experiment, conducted in a Swedish supermarket chain, where customers face a naturally occurring decision problem. People who recycle cans and bottles have to choose whether to keep the recycled amount or donate it to a charity organization. By posting a picture of human eyes on recycling machines, I am able to test whether this causes an increase in donations to the charity. Based on a sample covering a 12-day period, 38 stores and 16775 individual choices, I find no general effect. However, when controlling for store and day fixed effects, and using a proxy for store attendance, the picture of eyes increased donated amount by 30 percent during days when relatively few other people visited the store. This result gives further support to the conclusion that subtle social cues can invoke reputation concerns in humans, although the relatively small effect suggests that previous estimates could be biased upward, or at least that the influence of observational cues is context dependent.


Altruism Cues Reputation Field Experiment 

JEL Classification

A13 C93 D03 D64 



This paper would not have been produced without the help and assistance from a few people worth mentioning. First of all I want to thank my supervisor Robert Östling for immense support, great discussions and valuable comments. I also want to thank Coop and all their store managers, Tomra (the recycling machine company), Mikael Bruske at who printed the pictures for free and Johan Åberg whose eyes were used on the banner. Magnus Johanneson, Tore Ellingsen, Ernst Fehr, Stefano DellaVigna, Terence C. Burnham, David Strömberg, Juanna Joensen, Emilia Simeonova, Mårten Palme, Johan Egebark and Niklas Kaunitz as well as seminar participants at courses held within the Stockholm Doctoral Course Program in Economics have provided suggestions which greatly have improved the paper. At last I want to thank the editor and three anonymous referees, whose advise significantly improved the paper. Financial support from the Jan Wallander and Tom Hedelius Foundation is gratefully acknowledged. All remaining errors are my own.


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Copyright information

© Economic Science Association 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EconomicsStockholm UniversityStockholmSweden

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