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Images of Stern Eyes Stop Litterbugs in Their Tracks

A new study suggests that just placing pictures of eyes on products will cut down on our litter problem.

Image via Flickr user Bas Leenders

What wouldn’t you do if you knew you were being watched? Probably a lot of things—pick your nose, lick your plate, sing that horrible pop song at the top of your lungs, throw garbage on the ground. But a new study conducted on a university campus in the U.K. and highlighted by CityLab found that no one actually needs to be watching to reduce littering. Just the image of eyes will do the trick.


The study, led by Newcastle University’s Melissa Bateson and Daniel Nettle, saw the academics experiment with two kinds of leaflets: one with the image of angry male eyes and the caption “Beware of bike thieves,” the other with just the caption. The researchers then distributed the small pieces of paper around campus.

In a paper published in the journal PeerJ, the researchers reveal their results: Just 4.7 percent of people dropped the leaflets with the eyes on them on the ground, while 15.6 percent dropped the control.

Image via Flickr user Ciaran Roarty

“Our work shows that the presence of eye images can encourage cooperative behavior, and we think this is because people feel they are being watched,” Nettle said in a press release. “As we care what other people think about us, we behave better and more honestly when we feel we are being observed.”

Previous work has shown that images of eyes can cut down on bad behavior, including a study by the same researchers that found eye images to reduce campus bike thefts by up to 62 percent. Other studies, however, have focused on big, wall-mounted images of eyes—think T.J. Eckleberg—which would be unnerving, not to mention downright impractical, to put everywhere.

But the researchers suggest that simply printing eyes on packaging might do a world of good for the world’s littering problem. “Fast food retailers might want to think about using it on packaging to discourage people discarding the wrappers,” Bateson suggested.

Big Brother might not be watching you, but an image of his eyes is—so put it in the trash.

(Via CityLab)