Under Watchful Eyes

Even a mere photograph of a pair of eyes influences our decisions



Quantum physicists have learned that subatomic particles change their conduct when being observed. That proven fact raises the question whether the particles respond to being watched, as we do. Psychologists call that response, in humans, the Hawthorne Effect. For who can resist presenting the best version of himself under the prying gaze of watchful eyes? Who hasn’t acted selfishly when he thought he could get away with it, but behaved righteously when observed?

Indeed, humans are so sensitive to being watched that a mere photograph of a pair of eyes influences our decisions. We don’t have to be consciously aware of those eyes. A strong belief that God is watching could be enough to make us behave. (This is a gift unique to humans. Chimpanzees exhibit no such reaction to another chimp’s eyes, even though their eye-tracking and facial recognition abilities are similar to ours.)

A clever experiment with children on Halloween showed they would grab more candy from a bowl if unobserved, but they behave like angels when being watched, even if it’s only their own mirror reflection staring back at them.

A college campus in the UK had high rates of bicycle theft at certain locations. A pair-of-eyes sign was attached to a pole. “Cycle Thieves! We are watching you!” it read. Cycle theft dropped 62% at the three sign locations but increased at sites not posted with the warning. The “eyes” made theft less likely. Same for public littering, which was drastically reduced even in test areas purposely trashed. Singapore, London, and New York use surveillance systems noticeably situated in specific locations to induce acceptable behavior.

The Hawthorne Effect differs from the Placebo Effect, which occurs when a patient sufficiently believes in medicine such that real drugs or simple sugar can heal equally well. Both phenomena have in common outside influences that shape our thoughts, behavior, and the reality of who we are.

We know that Our Lord influenced the physical world around us, such as when Jesus beckoned fish into Simon’s nets. Is He still at work now, doing similar? And for our part as Christians, are we responding to God’s gaze?

“If you have enough faith, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will be done for you. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt 17:20).


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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