Imagine that we are walking down the street and find a piece of paper in our pocket. We want to throw it away, but we don’t see any trash cans nearby. What are we doing? Return or throw to the ground? Often this decision depends on whether someone is watching us. And it comes from look effect.
Human behavior is very complex. Most of the behaviors we display are related to social life. One issue that draws attention is that we tend to behave better when we feel like other people are watching us. Although, to be honest, this is not entirely true.
The truth is that we tend to behave according to how the people watching us think we should behave. Or rather, we do so based on how we think the people watching us think we should behave. It looks like a tongue twister, but it’s not. This phenomenon, known as the gaze effect, has been the subject of much research in neuroscience, psychology, and sociology.
Importance of gaze in social interaction
Almost from birth, humans learn to recognize and respond to social cues, and the gaze plays a crucial role in this process. A few days after birth, babies already show an unconscious impulse to look into the eyes of other people, especially those who care for them, in order to begin to establish a bond that supports the foundations of socialization.
We convey our emotional state through our eyes. Through this instinct, babies learn how they should respond to other people’s emotional views and how others react to their views. Facial expression also conveys an emotional state, but it forms the basis that determines the transmission of emotions through glances.
Visual communication is a fundamental form of social interaction and can communicate emotional and social information effectively, stimulating attention and alertness. Which, rebound, affects our behavior.
Staring effect and social pressure
One of the mechanisms contributing to the gaze effect is the sensation of being watched and socially pressured, which we feel when we feel that others are looking at us. Knowing we’re being watched activates our brain’s attentional systems, both automatic in the thalamus and reflexive in the prefrontal cortex.
The thalamus is a brain structure that activates when an external event or thought is important enough to demand our attention, which determines the threshold of consciousness. And through this preconscious activation, the prefrontal cortex controls conscious and voluntary attention, which increases our self-awareness and makes us more aware of our actions. This helps us to anticipate its consequences, especially at the social level.
This additional awareness promotes more strict self-regulation of our behavior, restraining what we would like to do or our impulses in order to avoid the disapproval of our environment or the possible negative consequences associated with inappropriate behavior. For this reason, it’s not that we tend to behave better when we feel we’re being watched, but rather that we do what we assume the people watching us expect us to do.
The image of one eye is enough for us to comply with the rules
The influence of the gaze on our behavior has been demonstrated by a series of careful experiments. In one of them, for example, they installed a “Do not litter” sign and observed the behavior of people passing through the territory. In some cases, an image of some eyes was placed next to the sign, and in others, only text. The results showed that in the presence of eyes, the number of people dropping paper or other objects on the ground was significantly reduced compared to situations in which the eyes were absent.
Another study used mock surveillance cameras in a coffee shop. The researchers found that when customers believed they were being recorded, they were more likely to clean their desks after using them compared to those who did not sense the presence of the cameras.
What is the gaze effect?
There are various hypotheses that try to explain the influence of the gaze on our behavior. These are not exclusionary hypotheses, but complementary ones.
On the one hand, there are hypotheses that emphasize the importance of social control, especially in a species, a person whose social life is directly related to survival. These hypotheses suggest that the sensation of being watched, or simply the presence of the eyes, reminds us of social norms and behavioral expectations attributed to us. When we feel we are being watched, we are more likely to internalize these norms and act on them.
For this reason, there are teenagers who are capable of the most risky or meaningless actions simply because they think that this is what their social environment, other teenagers, expects.
Another group of hypotheses is based on self-regulation. They suggest that the gaze of others works as a stimulus that helps us better control our behavior and therefore regulate it more effectively. When we feel we are being watched, we evaluate ourselves and adjust our behavior to maintain a positive image of ourselves, including to others.
Gaze effect in social contexts
It is important to note that the effect of gaze can differ in different social contexts. In situations where social norms are clear and appropriate behavior is expected, a closer look can reinforce these expectations and lead to greater compliance. However, in settings where norms are ambiguous or there is social tolerance for non-standard behavior, the staring effect may be less pronounced.
Of course, this also depends on each person, especially their level of self-confidence. People who are more confident tend to be less prone to staring. Insecure people who doubt their actions or abilities are much easier to succumb to the views of other people.
In conclusion, the gaze effect is a well-documented psychological phenomenon that shows how human behavior can be shaped and changed in the presence of other people. The sense of surveillance and social pressure we experience when we are being watched makes us behave more appropriately to what we assume is expected of us through mechanisms of social control and self-regulation.
Source: Hiper Textual