Now, there is another aspect involved in this idea about our behaviour being affected by facial expressions, and it is the fact that, as human beings we are social creatures that tend to pay a lot of attention (even if it’s involuntary) to what others think of our actions and our image. This gives way to a very interesting effect, because whenever we are being observed, or think we’re being observed, we tend to engage in behaviours that are socially-accepted ones like cooperativeness and other behaviours that benefit the common good.
There is vast experimental evidence that demonstrates people tend to cooperate and donate more when exposed to pictures of eyes or even drawings that depict a pair of eyes looking straight at them. We can get a very good idea of this by having a quick look into the experiment of Burnham & Hare (2007), where the experimenters managed to increase cooperation and contributions in a Public Good Game by using an image of a robot with human traits.
The robot they used is named Kismet, and has a structure similar to a human face, but it’s not constructed with materials that resemble at all a human face, except for the eyes, which are human-like. Kismet was built with the purpose of stimulating the neuronal structures focusing specifically on the effects of our recognition of eyes and looks.
Participants of the experiment received $10 dollars in advance to take part in a computerised six-round Public Good Game. In each round, every participant received 10 tokens with a value of $0.20 each, and had to decide whether to invest them in a public account (Public Good) or in a private account. The tokens in the private account remained with the player, while the tokens invested in the public account were doubled and then divided equally amongst every participant. This ensured participants had incentives to make contributions to the Public Good; however, given the nature of the game and the fact that contributions to the Public account would be doubled, the profit maximising strategy por players was not to contribute any tokens to the public account. You can see the resemblance to a Public Good dilemma such as paying for the water bills in countries like Mexico where it is socially better if you pay your bill, but nothing really happens to your service if you decide to free ride and not pay it, making the no-pay strategy a payoff maximising one.
The experiment was divided into 2 groups, both of them played the same game and were exposed to the exact same conditions with only one difference, the control group entered the experiment and had nothing else than the regular desktop in the computer, while the treatment group had an image of Kismet watching straight at them in the desktop an appeared every time a round ended. It shouldn’t surprise you to find out that participants who were exposed to Kismet’s look contributed 29% more on average to the public good (public account) than the participants in the control group.
The fact that people saw Kismet’s look staring straight at them appears to have activated their pro-social behaviour, resulting in the 29% increase in contributions. The amazing part of all this is that other studies have replicated this and show that our brains are wired to detect visual stimulus, that causes us to think we’re being watched and as a result of this en up acting in a more cooperative and social way. This is is a great example of what is known as priming.
Priming consists of the exposition to stimulus that may affect the next action we are going to do; in this case, Kismet’s look acted as a priming source, which affected the contributions to the public good in a socially desired way.
So if Kismet stared straight at Irrational Cosi while he contemplates his overdue water bill, do you think he would finally decide to act pro-socially and pay it?