14 minutes reading time (2717 words)

Invisibilty, and doing the right thing

This week the BBC’s moral maze  (  provocatively asked about the role of individual conscience and whether people act less morally when they are unseen,  This came  on the back of scientists possibly having invented a Harry Potterish  ‘invisibility cloak’ capacity to become invisible by bending light etc. The program raised crucial matters relevant to issues currently in the news,  such as the banking scandals and what the likes of Bob Diamond  felt they should be able to ‘get away with’, as well as the shocking behaviours in mid-Staffordhsire NHS trust and in care homes where elderly residents were  abused. The 2 key issues  being debated were whether we need more regulation (eg of banks or hospitals) or   should moral acts by led by individual conscience, because externally imposed ‘targets’ and expectations in fact make people less personally motivated to do the right thing. These are thorny issues.


In fact we know that if we are left to our own devices and think no-one is watching, generally we are less moral. Take the fascinating research at the University of Newcastle by Melissa Bateson and Daniel Nettle. They  looked at whether or not students when making tea or coffee would contribute to an honesty box which provided the income with which stocks were replenished [1]. Just above the box they experimented with hanging two kinds of pictures; the first was simply of a pair of eyes and the second was of a flower. Astonishingly, when the picture of the eyes was hanging above the honesty box the students contributed three times as much! Thus the pair of eyes functioned as a way of priming people to be in touch with their consciences. Similarly Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University, experimented by giving students a test, letting them know that they would earn more money the better they did in the test and also making sure that there was plenty of room to cheat. One group, before the test, were asked to recall 10 books that they had read in high school and the other half were asked to recall as many of the 10 commandments as they could. Fascinatingly those who had been asked to recall the Ten Commandments, irrespective of how many they recalled, were far less likely to cheat.[7].  Just being in touch with a moral prompt seems to make a huge difference to how ethically we behave.

Indeed even children of around six years old act more fairly when they think they are being observed [2]. By this age they often actively dissemble so as to be thought more fair than they are [3]. They have been shown to be more generous, giving more stickers away for example, when they know that they can be seen than when they think they are invisible [4]. Much research suggests that shame and the fear of a bad reputation, or of being punished, are massive drivers of better behaviour. We watch out for unfairness and misdemeanours in others and most of us want to be thought well of.

Many of us know only too well how either office or community gossip can make or destroy reputations. Fear of gossip and worry about reputation has been a staple of human life from hunter gatherer communities to modern urban ones. As Wiessner [5] found in her in-depth study of the !Kung, and as Boehm’s anthropological  accounts  [6] also attest, the main topic of gossip in such societies has been non-cooperative, non egalitarian behaviour, as well as laziness, stinginess, and generally being anti-social.

Moral prompts will have a greater effect on some of us than others, depending on the extent to which being moral is an important part of our self-identity. Dr Karl Aquino [8] and his colleagues at their research centre that they appropriately call the  ‘The Immorality Lab’  found that people for whom a moral identity is more central are more generous and pro-social than those for whom it is less important. Interestingly for the people who were more moral anyway a prime of reading the Ten Commandments had far less influence than it did on those whose moral identity is weaker. For others who did not have such a strong internal moral sense,  such primes can be surprisingly influential.

Gossip has remained a really vital form of ensuring social conformity, and interestingly it has many beneficial side-effects, as Dr Robb Willer and his colleagues of the University of Berkeley have found [9]. These researchers had participants play a trust game, in which money or points were to be shared. In one game it became obvious that a particular participant was hoarding more than their fair share, and the observers would tend to gossip about this player to any newcomer to the game. Interestingly, on observing the cheat in action the observers’ heart-rates rose but when they gossiped their heart rates came down. It seems that such prosocial gossiping is good for the group but also for  the gossiper’s health.  In such trust games the higher someone scores on scales of altruism the more they are upset by cheating, and the more likely they are to engage in gossip about the cheat. Such gossiping is not undertaken from malicious intent, it seems but rather  because of strong feelings of fairness and a wish to help others out. They would even sacrifice some of their own winnings to pass gossip onto others when such self-sacrificing payments were allowed.

This need to gossip, fear of being gossiped about and commitment to fairness seems to be wired into us. Even young children do it.  In an experiment at the famous Max Planck institute [11] a story was enacted with puppets for 3 year olds. One puppet made a picture and when he left the room the other puppet destroyed the absent puppet’s creations. The result was that the 3 year olds protested when the damage was being done, but also ‘tattled’ on the actor/puppet when the harmed puppet returned. Children as young as three actively use moralistic and normative language to prod peers who do not conform to group norms[12].

Gossip gets a bad press, and can of course sometimes take the form of self-righteousness, but such tendencies can also be a force for the social good. Rob Willer and his colleagues  [9] found that when people in a game knew that they might be the subject of gossip they played considerably more fairly, and the biggest change was seen in those who had the lowest levels of altruism. These are powerful results which might have implications for both more predatory forms of capitalist  practice (eg banking) and for various forms of public service  (eg NHS scandals).

Human societies have always depended on reputation. As we have moved into an increasingly complex market economy ever more ingenious ways have been found to try to ensure that we can trust the person we are dealing with, tripadvisor, amazon or ebay ratings being typical. It is no coincidence that the same reward circuits fire up in our brains when trying to earn money as when trying to build a reputation [10], and of course money is often used to enhance reputations, hence designer labels and other status symbols. It seems that we want status symbols because we want to be thought well of, and the research shows that the brain regions that light up when we gain financial rewards are very linked, and sometimes the same as, those engaged when we receive praise for personal attributes such as sincerity and generosity.

Our social structures of course are not organised with the welfare of others we central, with core moral or prosocial values as fundamental, but rather with the values of material consumption and financial rewards to the fore. Institutions organised  around values, around what people think is right and best for other people as well as themselves, might well function as moral prompts leading people to act better. Obviously we are a long way from having social structures and leadership in this direction. What we have had instead is a culture of regulation, and increasingly in the public sector, of incentivisation, and these give rise to very different motivations.  In our public sector work we I did what we do primarily to comply with regulatory structures (the form filling etc), or because of getting financial rewards of some kind, then our motivation to act well on behalf of our clients would be severely diminished.  Public sector workers might have needed some monitoring or gossip-like incentives so that everyone pulls together, but most on the front-line work hard because of caring about doing a  good job.   There is a difference between our innate desire to do the decent thing, which might need some prodding, and the stimulation of carrot and stick regulation or our equally innate desire for status and individual gain by messages in advertising.

We know that simply reading  stories containing many moral statements, makes people more likely to do a good deed than if they read a story about very selfish people being rewarded, or if they are exposed to a cunning selling technique, especially for those for whom a moral self-identity is less central. We might question whether our social institutions and immediate social landscapes could be organised to optimise better moral behaviour. We are exhorted far more to earn, consume and spend than to work for the common interest.

It is possible though that a market oriented materialistic and individualistic culture mitigates against such policing by gossiping and reputation. After all, Bob Diamond was quite frank about why bankers might get away with things if they were not seen, and the care home workers would have acted differently if they knew cameras were focussing  on them.

I think the research suggests  that regulation and external control in fact take away the ‘intrinsic’ motivation for doing a task. Blood donations seem to decline when people start being paid for them, for example, [13],  and even children become less altruistic once adults start to reward them for altruistic acts that they would have done spontaneously anyway [14].  What seems to be missing in the arguments about regulation or incentivisation is that people want to have the chance to be motivated by intrinsic values, by what they care about and believe in, alongside other people working for a similar cause..


Helping others fires reward circuits in our brains [15], it makes us feel good, while doing something for an ulterior motive, such as financial rewards in adults or to get a toy for child, is not as intrinsically rewarding. This is what a lot of people are currently experiencing in the health service and other public sector  work. Many have for years been prepared to go the extra mile ‘because they cared’ and because they felt emotionally rewarded by the work. Now as people feel ‘checked up on’ and as they feel distrusted,or are constantly encouraged to ‘turn a buck’, the motivation is more likely to be to do just what one has to do and no more. Nurses and other public sector workers are more likely to give their all if they really believe in their work and feel appreciated. Few will go the extra mile for a few extra quid, although many might ‘play the game’. This is a big loss as the motivation then becomes much more ‘extrinsic’ and  it is intrinsic rewards that are emotionally motivating, good for the soul and get the best out of people.


The increase of ‘top-down’ management and market values runs counter to this . Some might know the work of Les Ross and his colleagues who invented a new version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma [16], a hugely researched evolutionary game which pits cooperation and loyalty against selfish motives.  They told one group of players that the game was called the ‘Wall Street Game, and another group that it was called ‘The Cooperation Game’. Guess what? 70% of those playing the ‘Community Game’ cooperated, as opposed to only 33% of those playing the ‘Wall Street Game’, even though there was no difference in the games other than the name. There are important lessons here maybe about the kind of society and work environments, and indeed families, that we create. If we create a world in which the primary belief is that we all have to be motivated by pressure, or greed, and that we are not to be trusted, then people will act more selfishly and from more extrinsic motivations.

It might be true that many if not all of us are more likely to be dishonest and duplicitous if circumstances allow this, when there is less transparency and more secrecy, obfuscation and anonymity. (There is even more cheating in dimly lit rooms than brightly lit ones, as researchers Zhong, Bohns and Gino found in their aptly entitled paper ‘Good Lamps are the Best Police’ [17]). This presumably is what we have seen in the field of high finance since the decreases in regulation. However there can be  something in- between being anonymous  (and invisibly fixing libor rates or abusing old people), and being overly scrutinised by a demanding big-brother other. This might be an environment  and society that believes in the best in people and their potential,  (even if there are the odd free-loaders and cheats) , where reputational rewards depend on being honourable rather than having designer status symbols, maybe where gossip could still do its stuff,  a society that  values a cooperative ethos and the common good, not just individual, selfish and  financial interests.


[1]        M. Ernest-Jones, D. Nettle, and M. Bateson, ‘Effects of eye images on everyday cooperative behavior: a field experiment’, Evolution and Human Behavior, 2010.

[2]        D. Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. HarperCollins, 2009.

[3]        A. Shaw, N. Montinari, M. Piovesan, K. R. Olson, F. Gino, and M. I. Norton, ‘Children Develop a Veil of Fairness’, Journal of Experimental Psychology:, 2013.

[4]        A. Shaw, N. Montinari, M. Piovesan, K. R. Olson, F. Gino, and M. I. Norton, ‘Children Develop a Veil of Fairness’, Harvard Business School Working Paper, 2012.

[5]        K. L. Leimgruber, A. Shaw, L. R. Santos, and K. R. Olson, ‘Young Children Are More Generous When Others Are Aware of Their Actions’, PLoS ONE, vol. 7, no. 10, p. e48292, Oct. 2012.

[6]        P. Wiessner, ‘Experimental Games and Games of Life among the Ju/’hoan Bushmen’, Current Anthropology, vol. 50, no. 1, pp. 133–138, Feb. 2009.

[7]        C. Boehm, Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Basic Books, 2012.

[8]        K. Aquino, D. Freeman, A. Reed, V. K. . Lim, and W. Felps, ‘Testing a social-cognitive model of moral behavior: The interactive influence of situations and moral identity centrality.’, Journal of personality and social psychology, vol. 97, no. 1, p. 123, 2009.

[9]        M. Feinberg, R. Willer, J. Stellar, and D. Keltner, ‘The virtues of gossip: Reputational information sharing as prosocial behavior.’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2012.

[10]      A. Vaish, M. Missana, and M. Tomasello, ‘Three‐year‐old children intervene in third‐party moral transgressions’, British Journal of Developmental Psychology, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 124–130, 2011.

[11]      M. F. H. Schmidt and M. Tomasello, ‘Young Children Enforce Social Norms’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 21, no. 4, pp. 232–236, Aug. 2012.

[12]      R. Saxe and J. Haushofer, ‘For love or money: A common neural currency for social and monetary reward’, Neuron, vol. 58, no. 2, pp. 164–165, 2008.

[13]      J. Costa-Font, M. Jofre-Bonet, and S. T. Yen, ‘Not All Incentives Wash Out the Warm Glow: The Case of Blood Donation Revisited’, SSRN eLibrary, Jul. 2011.

[14]      M. Tomasello, Why We Cooperate. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2009.

[15]      J. Moll, R. Zahn, R. de Oliveira-Souza, F. Krueger, and J. Grafman, ‘The neural basis of human moral cognition’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol. 6, no. 10, pp. 799–809, 2005.

[16]      V. Liberman, S. M. Samuels, and L. Ross, ‘The Name of the Game: Predictive Power of Reputations Versus Situational Labels in Determining Prisoner’s Dilemma Game Moves’, Pers Soc Psychol Bull, vol. 30, no. 9, pp. 1175–1185, Jan. 2004.

[17]      C. B. Zhong, V. K. Bohns, and F. Gino, ‘Good lamps are the best police’, Psychological Science, vol. 21, no. 3, p. 311, 2010.

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