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Eye photos might deter crime, police say following research 

Sept. 8, 2006
Courtesy University College London
and World Science staff

An ex­per­i­ment that found a way to make peo­ple act more hon­est­ly has be­come the in­spi­ra­tion for a new po­lice cam­paign.

The re­search found that peo­ple put near­ly three times as much cash in­to an un­su­per­vised col­lec­tion box when they’re un­der the gaze of a pair of eyes de­picted on a post­er.

Courtesy West Midlands Police


Po­lice in the West Mid­lands, U.K. are us­ing the idea for a new anti-crime cam­paign. Pro­mo­tio­n­al pos­t­ers fea­ture eyes with the mes­sage “We’ve got our eyes on cri­m­i­nal­s.”

The law en­forcers ac­k­nowl­edge a debt to the stu­dy by Me­lis­sa Bate­son and col­leagues at New­cas­tle Uni­ver­si­ty in New­cas­tle Up­on Tyne, U.K., pub­lished ear­li­er this year in the jour­nal Bi­ol­o­gy Let­ters

“We are al­ways in­ter­est­ed in new and in­no­va­tive ways of try­ing to re­duce crime,” said Sue Sou­th­ern, chief in­s­pec­tor and spokes­wo­m­an for the po­lice de­part­ment.

Officers were “in­spired by 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.”

Bate­son, for her part, said “we’re thrilled to see our re­search be­ing used to pre­vent crime in the real world.”

Bate­son and col­leagues made use of a long-running “hon­esty box” sys­tem in a uni­ver­si­ty com­mon room for their ex­per­i­ment.

An hon­es­ty box is pay­ment sys­tem—an hon­or sys­tem, some would call it—that re­lies on peo­ple’s hon­es­ty to pay a spec­i­fied price for goods. Buy­ers put the cash in­to the box, but no one su­per­vises. 

Bate­son’s group cal­cu­lat­ed how much peo­ple paid for drinks when a price list fea­tur­ing a pic­ture of eyes was placed above the hon­es­ty box, com­pared to a list with an im­age of flow­ers. On av­er­age, peo­ple paid 2.76 times as much on weeks when the list fea­tured eyes, the re­search­ers found. They rea­soned that it prob­a­bly works be­cause the brain nat­u­ral­ly re­acts to the eye im­ages. 

The po­lice in­i­ti­a­tive, called Op­er­a­tion Mo­men­tum, is aimed at tack­ling a rise in crime that tra­di­tion­ally oc­curs in the fall.


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An experiment that found a way of making people act more honestly has become the inspiration for a new police campaign. The research found that people put nearly three times as much cash into an unsupervised collection box when they’re under the gaze of a pair of eyes depicted on a poster. Now police in the West Midlands, U.K. are using the idea for a new anti-crime campaign. Promotional posters feature eyes with the message “We’ve got our eyes on criminals.” The law enforcers acknowledge a debt to the study by Melissa Bateson and colleagues at Newcastle University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, U.K., published earlier this year in the journal Biology Letters. “We are always interested in new and innovative ways of trying to reduce crime,” said Sue Southern, chief inspector and spokeswoman for the police department. “We have been inspired by 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.” Bateson, for her part, said “we’re thrilled to see our research being used to prevent crime in the real world.” Bateson and colleagues made use of a long-running “honesty box” system in a university common room for their experiment. An honesty box is payment system—an honor system, some would call it—that relies on people’s honesty to pay a specified price for goods. Buyers put the cash into the box, but no one supervises. Bateson’s group calculated how much people paid for drinks when a price list featuring a picture of eyes was placed above the honesty box, compared to a list with an image of flowers. On average, people paid 2.76 times as much on weeks when the list featured eyes, the researchers found. They reasoned that it probably works because the brain naturally reacts to the eye images. The police initiative, called Operation Momentum, is aimed at tackling a rise in crime that traditionally occurs in the fall.