Eyes Wide Open: Only Eyes That Pay Attention Promote Prosocial Behavior

Zoi Manesi, Paul Van Lange, Thomas Pollet

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Citations (Scopus)
14 Downloads (Pure)


Research from evolutionary psychology suggests that the mere presence of eye images can promote prosocial behavior. However, the “eye images effect” is a source of considerable debate, and findings across studies have yielded somewhat inconsistent support. We suggest that one critical factor may be whether the eyes really need to be watching to effectively enhance prosocial behavior. In three experiments, we investigated the impact of eye images on prosocial behavior, assessed in a laboratory setting. Participants were randomly assigned to view an image of watching eyes (eyes with direct gaze), an image of nonwatching eyes (i.e., eyes closed for Study 1 and averted eyes for Studies 2 and 3), or an image of flowers (control condition). Upon exposure to the stimuli, participants decided whether or not to help another participant by completing a dull cognitive task. Three independent studies produced somewhat mixed results. However, combined analysis of all three studies, with a total of 612 participants, showed that the watching component of the eyes is important for decision-making in this context. Images of watching eyes led to significantly greater inclination to offer help as compared to images of nonwatching eyes (i.e., eyes closed and averted eyes) or images of flowers. These findings suggest that eyes gazing at an individual, rather than any proxy to social presence (e.g., just the eyes), serve as a reminder of reputation. Taken together, we conclude that it is “eyes that pay attention” that can lift the veil of anonymity and potentially facilitate prosocial behavior.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)147470491664078
JournalEvolutionary Psychology
Issue number2
Early online date14 Apr 2016
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jun 2016


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