Putting Eyeballs on Billboards Might Help Stop Crime

The feeling of being watched makes human change their behavior, even if it comes from a poster.

watching eyes
Paul Souders/Corbis

There’s a reason why so many security signs come with a pair of menacing-looking eyes printed on them: just seeing them might make people act differently around them.

Knowing that someone – or something – is watching you can mean the difference between life and death for any animal. While humans don’t have much in the way of natural predators anymore, that instinct still lingers in the back of the brain. In fact, neurological studies have shown that there are special brain cells that fire when a person is being stared at, even if it’s from the very edges of their sight, Ilan Shrira writes for Psychology Today. This phenomenon is called “gaze detection,” and while humans evolved it to avoid being eaten by predators, some law enforcement agencies believe that it might actually help to deter some crimes.

While F. Scott Fitzgerald famously commented on the phenomenon with the staring eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby, police departments around the world have taken advantage of it to try and lower crime rates in some areas. Police in West Midlands, U.K., have hung posters with photographs of staring eyes as part of the sinister-sounding “Operation Momentum” for almost a decade, Rick Paulas writes for Atlas Obscura.

More recently, police in Nottinghamshire have reported that small crimes like shoplifting have dropped almost 40 percent since they deployed similar signs in 2013, Padraic Flanagan writes for The Daily Mail. “When it began, I had no idea whether it would work,” Inspector Nick Butler, who used an image of his own eyes on the Nottinghamshire posters, tells Flanagan. “It has been a dramatic reduction. People seem to behave better when they feel watched.”

At first, this seems like an easy fix: just print up a few cheap signs, hang them in neighborhoods with a high crime rate and potential thieves might feel too creeped out to act. However, it’s unclear whether the crime rate would rise up once people got used to the signs and it’s possible that the presence of the signs simply redirected the thieves to other targets, Paulas writes.

In a 2013 study, researchers from Newcastle University hung signs with glaring eyes and a printed warning against bicycle thieves near some campus bike racks. After two years, they found that the racks with signs nearby reported a 62 percent drop in bike thefts. But at the same time, other places on campus reported a 63 percent increase in stolen bikes, suggesting that the thieves just went elsewhere, Paulas writes.

“It is plausible that if we think we're being watched we might behave,” psychologist Tom Stafford, who was not involved with the study, wrote Paulas. “We do know for sure that eyes capture visual attention. They stand out, are often the first thing people notice, etc., so it may just be that the eyes make people notice the signs, which then have more effect.”

These days, however, the feeling of being watched might be more than just because of a poster. Some police departments in the United States are beginning to experiment with using drones and high-altitude aircraft to watch out for crimes and fugitives. While eyes printed on signs may make you think twice about stealing that candy bar from the grocery, the eyes in the sky might make sure you won’t get away.

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