December 25, 2006

Jeff Larche: Online Use Of A Primal Reaction To Eye Contact

Jeff Larche hosts the popular blog, Digital Solid. Here is his Boxing Day contribution for The MineThatData Blog.


We mammals celebrate Mother’s Day more deeply than other classes of creatures. We’re born in need of nurturing. The debt that humans (and the other 5,500 species of mammals) have to parents and community begins at birth and marks us for life. I suspect this is why we have an unconscious reaction to being watched.

In a previous post, An online ad tip from an eye-tracking expert, I described how the only consistently successful online advertising tactic found by one researcher was the use of a pair of human eyes staring directly back at the web page visitor. These ads drew visitors’ attention like magnets — an important factor, since you must attract viewer attention before you can do anything else (like generate a click from that person).

Now a study conducted by Newcastle University in the UK finds that being “watched” by a poster showing a pair of eyes has a startlingly large influence over consumer behavior. It suggests other ways that images of eyes (whether they are on a wall or on a web page) can have an effect over those in their “gaze.” Here’s an excerpt:

We all know the scene: the departmental coffee room, with the price list for tea and coffee on the wall and the “honesty box” where you pay for your drinks — or not, because no one is watching.

In a finding that will have office managers everywhere scurrying for the photocopier, researchers have discovered that merely a picture of watching eyes nearly trebled the amount of money put in the box.

Melissa Bateson and colleagues at Newcastle University, UK, put up new price lists each week in their psychology department coffee room. Prices were unchanged, but each week there was a photocopied picture at the top of the list, measuring 15 by 3 centimetres, of either flowers or the eyes of real faces. The faces varied but the eyes always looked directly at the observer.

In weeks with eyes on the list, staff paid 2.76 times as much for their drinks as in weeks with flowers. “Frankly we were staggered by the size of the effect,” [reports] Gilbert Roberts, one of the researchers.

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