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


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.

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  1. 1.

    Although the results confirm more generous dictators, they are somewhat mixed. Burnham (2003) finds the mean allocated amount to increase by 64 percent in the photo treatment while the proportion allocating money to the recipient remains constant. Haley and Fessler (2005) reports a large percentage increase in both the proportion of dictators allocating something to the recipient and in the mean allocated amount (68 and 55 percentage increase respectively). Rigdon et al. (2009), who utilize a weaker cue, find a general increase of 15 percent in the proportions of dictators allocating something to the recipient but no significant effect on the allocated amount. However, when focusing on males in their sample, treated subjects are more than twice as likely to allocate something to the recipient which also translates into an equivalent increase in the average allocated amount. Burnham (2003) and Haley and Fessler (2005) do not find any gender differences with regards to treatment.

  2. 2.

    Also, a recent study (Oda et al., 2011) which replicates the findings of Haley and Fessler (2005), lets subjects report feelings and motives in a questionnaire after the experiment. Even though the authors pledge for caution in drawing any conclusions, it is noteworthy that giving under treatment was positively correlated with expressing: “A situation in which my good behavior would be evaluated by someone”. It can therefore not be ruled out that these kind of cues induce experimenter demand effects in dictator games.

  3. 3.

    Honesty box refers to an unmonitored box with payment instructions that is often used in different settings when other means of payment are not feasible or too costly.

  4. 4.

    At least two studies confirms that observing more money in the collection box can increase further donations (Soetevent 2005; Martin and Randal 2008).

  5. 5.

    The last interpretation is plausible since the message accompanying the watching eyes ends with: “Thank you. The Bistro Team”.

  6. 6.

    Among others, Levitt and List (2007) argue that well designed field experiments are needed to explore the generalizability of pro-social behavior. In that respect this study contributes in even more dimensions then the two mentioned above. For example, subjects in this field experiment face a real life situation and are not self-selected to participate. Furthermore, they make decisions regarding self-earned money.

  7. 7.

    Coop is the name of the KF company’s grocery retail group and has four types of grocery chains; Coop Forum, Coop Extra, Coop Konsum and Coop Nära. Together they account for 21.4 percent of the Swedish grocery market, making it the second largest market participant. The former two, Forum and Extra, are of larger character typically located further from customers but with greater variety and lower prices. The latter two chains serve peoples need for a nearby store with generous opening hours. My sample only consists of Konsum and Nära stores. In total there are 267 Konsum or Nära stores in Sweden and 94 of them are located in Stockholm.

  8. 8.

    The organization is present in developing countries all over the world and was founded by the Swedish cooperative movement in 1958 with a mission to:

    “Support poor women and men to enable them to increase their incomes, improve their living conditions, defend their rights, and organize themselves. Strengthen the democratic and economic development of our partner organizations and contribute to the development of democratic and just societies.” (From the organization’s web page,

    Out of 34.2 Million Swedish Kronor (MSEK) collected during 2008, 3.14 MSEK came from the recycling customers at Coop (1SEK∼0.13 USD).

  9. 9.

    The Swedish Cooperative Centre emerged from the same consumer cooperative movement behind the supermarket chain Coop. It is therefore not implausible that the specific charity organization is regarded in positive light by recycling customers in general. This statement is also supported by the relatively large proportion of donors reported in Sect. 3. In the organization’s latest annual report it can be read that 27 percent of the Swedish population are aware of them and that their Facebook fansite is highly ranked among Swedish charity organizations.

  10. 10.

    The period was September 30 to October 12, 2009, excluding October 6 when pictures were changed. The motivation of the control picture, as opposed to having nothing, is to capture the effect of something unexpected being posted close to the buttons possibly making subjects more likely to press the charity button. The choice of control picture (a black and white colored, flower wall paper, in the same format, 7×2.5 cm, as the eye picture) was chosen to mimic the study undertaken in Bateson et al. (2006).

  11. 11.

    The most obvious problem one is confronted with when a store has multiple machines is whether to post a picture on each machine or only on one of them. If each machine in a specific store were used, a lot of information will be gathered from the same store at the expense of a wider geographical sample. If only one of the machines were to be used there could be a potential dropout problem since people might observe the picture and therefore choose another recycling machine in the same store. Multiple machines also exist for a reason, namely there are many customers. Hence people in these stores are likely to feel or be observed even without the picture of eyes.

  12. 12.

    Explicit observation cues refers to real observers in the form of other customers as opposed to implicit observation cues which in this case is the picture of eyes.

  13. 13.

    Excluding these observations altogether does not change the results. Note also that this never occurred during a switch between eye and control picture.

  14. 14.

    The experimental setup in this study was not immune to the possibility for customers and/or uninformed store personal to withdraw pictures from the recycling machine. As long as this happened in a random fashion my results are still unbiased even though I got fewer observations. A full panel would have consisted of 12×38=456 observations. 44 observations are discarded due to withdrawn pictures and additional four due to broken machines leaving me with 408 observations. Estimating the effect with all 456 observations (Intention to Treat) did not affect the results.

  15. 15.

    The conclusions from this test do not change if we exclude the fixed effects.

  16. 16.

    I should stress that it is very unlikely that a recycler is observed by another recycler, instead I use the number of recyclers as a proxy for the number of customers in general, hence, people being in the near surrounding who potentially could influence the decision-maker. That an overlap between recyclers and customers exists is confirmed by store managers I have talked to.

  17. 17.

    Store and day fixed effects are included in the regressions, excluding them do not alter the results. Estimation on the opposite subset (Manyrecycler equals one, or equivalently, decile 6–10 in Fig. 7) yields insignificant point estimates.

  18. 18.

    I am grateful to one referee who advised me to look closer into the role of explicit observation cues, and how the experimental manipulation in turn was linked to them.

  19. 19.

    Although recyclers make a binary choice (give or not), the recycler can divide the total recycled amount in a discrete way between the charity organization and herself by pressing on the charity button when her preferred donation amount has been reached. Thereafter she can recycle the rest of her property and click on the button for the cash receipt. Even though theoretically possible I find it unlikely that customers follow this process.

  20. 20.

    See the introduction for an explanation of them.


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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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Correspondence to Mathias Ekström.

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Ekström, M. Do watching eyes affect charitable giving? Evidence from a field experiment. Exp Econ 15, 530–546 (2012).

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  • Altruism
  • Cues
  • Reputation
  • Field Experiment

JEL Classification

  • A13
  • C93
  • D03
  • D64