Human Flower Project
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Do Flowers Say ‘Help Yourself’?
A team of English psychologists finds flowers make poor police.
Want to keep people in line? Don’t expect much help from flowers.
Melissa Bateson, a scholar at the University of Newcastle, led an intriguing experiment by diddling with a custom in the psychology department. As in many offices, there’s a box for on-your-honor donations at the tea, coffee, and milk station, with a notice of suggested prices. At the communal beverage stand, the scientists posted changing images close to the coin catcher, alternating photos of human eyes with pictures of daisies, lilies, and roses.
“People put nearly three times as much money into an ‘honesty box’ when they were being watched by a pair of eyes on a poster, compared with a poster that featured an image of flowers.” With a picture of blossoms nearby, beverage drinkers paid lots less than on days when they were pouring out a glass of milk or cup of coffee with a sense of somebody looking on. The findings were published last year in Biology Letters.
Dr. Bateson concludes: “Our brains are programmed to respond to eyes and faces whether we are consciously aware of it or not.” Even she was surprised at the power of a 2-dimensional gaze to curb petty theft (or discourage freebies, depending on how you see it). It seems that we’re all working fairly consistently, consciously and subconsciously, to protect our reputations—also known as CYA—and that a human gaze, even in an inanimate one, serves as a cue that our public image may on the line.
Money paid/milk consumed:
low on flower weeks, high on eyes weeks
Image: M. Bateson et al.
We were curious that Dr. Bateson chose flowers as the experiment’s control. Why not just have eyes one week and nothing the next? “I wanted something eyecatching,” she wrote, “and I also liked the idea that flowers have evolved as a signal to another species (insects rather than humans admittedly) to attract their attention.”
But we think it’s possible that the image of flowers, rather than being neutral, might actually have reduced the amount of donations in the kitty. Might not flowers suggest, both consciously and subliminally, “be our guest”? A picture of roses or daisies, we believe, might actually have altered the visual message at the coffee station, making the posted price a “free will donation” rather than a fixed charge. Flowers, in other words, may not put people on their honor but at their ease.
“I hadn’t considered the possibility that flowers may actually make people less likely to pay! ” Dr. Bateson writes. We hope that she or others will repeat this fascinating experiment, incorporating this possibility. The team might rotate photos of eyes, flowers, nothing, and some other arresting image, and thus examine our subconscious associations not only with the human gaze but with the “floral gaze,” too.