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Eyes, More Than Other Facial Features, Enhance Real-World Donation Behavior

A Correction to this article was published on 15 November 2018

This article has been updated

Abstract

Humans often behave more prosocially when being observed in person and even in response to subtle eye cues, purportedly to manage their reputation. Previous research on this phenomenon has employed the “watching eyes paradigm,” in which adults displayed greater prosocial behavior in the presence of images of eyes versus inanimate objects. However, the robustness of the effect of eyes on prosocial behavior has recently been called into question. Therefore, the first goal of the present study was to attempt to replicate this effect. Additionally, it remains unclear whether the watching-eyes effect is driven specifically by reputation management (owing to the monitoring function of the eyes) or whether any cues indexing human presence more generally also have a similar effect. To address these questions, the current study compared prosocial behavior in the presence of eyes versus inanimate objects as well as other human features. The study was conducted as a field experiment at a children’s museum. Each week, the donation signs were changed to show eyes, noses, mouths, or chairs. Total donation amount and number of patrons per week were recorded. Participants donated more when they were exposed to eyes than to inanimate objects (chairs). We thus replicated the previously reported watching-eyes effect. Moreover, more money was donated when individuals were exposed to eyes than to more general cues of human presence (nose and mouth). The current findings suggest that eyes play a special role in promoting cooperation in humans, likely by serving as cues of monitoring and thus eliciting reputation management behavior.

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Fig. 1
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Change history

Notes

  1. All of our results held when we used a one-way ANOVA with bootstrapping (10,000 replications) and performed post-hoc analyses with a Bonferroni correction.

  2. This analysis had an unequal number of cells: 14 in Nose + Mouth pooled vs. 7 in the Eyes condition. We therefore also conducted a nonparametric test, which revealed a very similar result: Mann-Whitney U = 18.00, p = .020).

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Acknowledgments

We are extremely grateful to the Virginia Discovery Museum in Charlottesville, VA, and in particular to Kaitlin Clear German for all her assistance with data collection. In addition, we would like to thank Janine Oostenbroek and Katie Krol for helpful discussions and comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Amrisha Vaish.

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Kelsey, C., Vaish, A. & Grossmann, T. Eyes, More Than Other Facial Features, Enhance Real-World Donation Behavior. Hum Nat 29, 390–401 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-018-9327-1

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-018-9327-1

Keywords

  • Cooperation
  • Prosocial behavior
  • Reputation
  • Watching-eyes effect