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'Big Brother' eyes inspire police crime crackdown campaign

A Newcastle University experiment which found a way of making people act more honestly has provided inspiration for a police campaign.

The experiment, which gained global media attention, found that people put nearly three times as much money into a unsupervised coffee room cash collection box when they were being watched by a pair of eyes on a poster.

Now West Midlands Police are using the idea in an initiative called Operation Momentum, which is aimed at tackling the rise in crime that traditionally occurs in the autumn.

Promotional posters feature a distinctive picture of eyes carrying the message ‘We’ve got our eyes on criminals', which police say was inspired by the experiment by Newcastle University psychology researchers led by Dr Melissa Bateson.

Details of the experiment, published earlier this year in the Royal Society journal, Biology Letters, gained global publicity when the University press office issued a news release about its findings.

The hundreds of media outlets which covered the story included international TV and radio stations, the Globe and Mail, Canada, Der Spiegel, Germany, the Bangkok Post, Thailand, BBC Radio Four's Today programme, Radio Five Live, UK broadsheet and tabloid newspapers, regional media and many, many others.

Chief Inspector Sue Southern, Head of the Press and PR Department at West Midlands Police, said: "We are always interested in new and innovative ways of trying to reduce crime and promote crime reduction messages.

"We have been inspired by Dr Bateson's research and liked the idea that eyes peering down at thieves in crime hot spots could intimidate them into moving on rather than committing crime.

"This latest research at Newcastle University has quickly been built into our marketing for Operation Momentum and we hope it will give us that extra edge in making our streets safer."

Dr Bateson, of the Evolution and Behaviour Research Group in the School of Biology and Psychology at Newcastle University, worked with Drs Daniel Nettle and Gilbert Roberts for the study.

She said the fact that the study had provided inspiration for the police campaign highlighted the value of pure science projects: “We're thrilled to see our research being used to prevent crime in the real world,” she commented.

“We did the study just because we were interested in understanding human behaviour but it's really exciting that within a month of publication our findings are being applied to crime prevention.”

Dr Bateson and colleagues made use of a long-running 'honesty box' system in a University common room for their experiment.

An honesty box is a system of payment which relies on people's honesty to pay a specified price for goods or services. The group calculated how much people paid for their drinks when a price list featuring a picture of eyes was placed above the honesty box, compared to a list with a picture of flowers.

On average, people paid 2.76 as much for their drinks on the weeks when the price list featured pictures of eyes. The researchers say the eye pictures are probably influential because the brain naturally reacts to the images.

The experiment, which tested social co-operation theories, showed how people behave differently when they believe they are being watched because they are worried what others will think of them.

Claire Jordan | alfa
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