Keeping an Eye on Human Behavior

The Hindu monkey god Hanuman at Kovil Montagne (mountain temple) in Mauritius, an example of a religious symbol that may cause people to conform to social norms. (Dimitrios Xygalatas/UConn Photo)
Humans behave better when they're being watched, but it depends who's watching, a UConn study finds. The Hindu monkey god Hanuman at Kovil Montagne (mountain temple) in Mauritius is an example of a religious symbol that may cause people to conform to social norms. (Dimitrios Xygalatas/UConn Photo)

A camera, a pair of eyes painted on the wall, or a cat’s disapproving stare – all of these may serve to put us on our best behavior. Researchers call them agency cues.

Simply put, people who feel that their behavior is being observed act in more socially acceptable ways. “Observed people are nicer people,” notes UConn anthropologist Dimitrios Xygalatas wryly.

An agency cue evokes the presence of an intentional being, and causes people to behave differently, even though they may not be aware of it. In a paper published last week in PLoS, Xygalatas and UConn doctoral student Jan Kratky detail the findings of a recent study testing the efficacy of various agency cues on subjects in a real-world setting.

The researchers placed a refrigerator filled with Red Bull in a library entry, along with an “honor box” where envelopes would be filled with whatever payment those who took drinks from the refrigerator felt was fair. The arrangement included an agency cue that was placed next to the honor box. The experiment sought to explore whether an agency cue would elicit a greater response in three dimensions than in two. Over the course of four weeks, the experimenters made subtle shifts in the decoration of the room by changing the agency cue on display. A sculpture of a human head, a photo of that sculpture, a plant, and a photo of that plant were each in place for a week, and the amount of money left in exchange for drinks was recorded.

Observed people are nicer people. — Dimitrios Xygalatas

Overall, results showed that the participants, who did not know they were part of a study, responded more to the 3-D human head sculpture than the plant or the 2-D images. The significance of this data lies at the root of our most basic instincts and drives to survive. Whether we realize it or not, we intuitively modify our behavior when we feel observed, acting in ways that appear more “pro-social.” In early human cultures, where our ancestors lived in small-scale, face-to-face societies, doing the right thing was crucial: it could ensure our reputation and status in society.

“We are hypersensitive to responding to these cues, we are programmed to detect them,” Xygalatas says. “The cost of under-detecting could be dire.”

Intriguingly, this pro-social drive plays a role in very different aspects of life these days. From product advertising to propaganda posters or political ads, our behaviors can be influenced dramatically by cues in our environment. “Our environments affect us way more than we realize,” Xygalatas says. “We are very, very sensitive to all sorts of things.”

Another dimension to agency cues in his research is exploring the role of ‘religious primes,’ or things that act as reminders of religious ideas. Xygalatas delved extensively into this subject when he was director of the Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, before he joined the UConn faculty. The bottom line, he says, is that “People behave more pro-socially in religious settings like temples, and part of the explanation may be related to all those icons and statues acting as agency primes.”

In the recent study, although 43 percent of the participants who partook of beverages paid nothing at all, when the researchers looked at those who did make a contribution, they found that the agency cues significantly influenced their behavior.

“People who were predisposed not to donate might be harder to influence,” Xygalatas suggests, “but there was more variation among those who were willing to make the donation.”

Whether it is paying for goods or picking up what the dog left behind in the neighbor’s yard, human behavior is influenced by a complex interaction between evolved psychology and the social environment.

Adds Xygalatas, ”We are finding that we humans are much more interesting and complicated than previously thought. We are gaining an understanding of why we are the way we are. The ways we behave have been shaped by our past, and are being expressed in the present according to our experiences.”