How Flower Pictures Could Quash Comment Feuds

Turns out kittens aren't the most useful images on the interwebz. A study examining the effects of images on how people behave came up with a slightly surprising result: images of flowers have a bigger impact than pictures of eyes.

Picture by Andrew Gould

Our behaviour often changes if we believe we're being watched, but it turns out that pictures of eyes aren't quite enough to make us think that's happening. A study by two European academics of 386 subjects sought to examine the impact of images on how people behave. Here's the summary:

Sensitivity to reputation may be elicited by subtle social cues of being watched: previous studies have shown that people behave more cooperatively when they see images of eyes rather than control images. Here, we tested whether eye images enhance cooperation in a Dictator Game, using the online labour market Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT). In contrast to our predictions and the results of most previous studies, dictators gave away more money when they saw images of flowers rather than eye images. Donations in response to eye images were not significantly different to donations under control treatments. Dictator donations varied significantly across cultures but there was no systematic variation in responses to different image types across cultures.

One obvious issue here is that online interaction is more anonymous than real-world social contexts, a point the study also addresses:

Unlike most previous studies, players interacting via AMT may feel truly anonymous when making decisions and, as such, may not respond to subtle social cues of being watched. Nevertheless, dictators gave away similar amounts as in previous studies, so anonymity did not erase helpfulness. We suggest that eye images might only promote cooperative behaviour in relatively public settings and that people may ignore these cues when they know their behaviour is truly anonymous.

Anecdotal experience does indeed suggest that people often behave very differently when they think they're anonymous (comments on forums and sites are often more inflammatory than those on Facebook). I don't think we'll be strewing the comments section with flower images yet, but it's an interesting reminder than visual context can impact our behaviour.

A positive effect of flowers rather than eye images in a large-scale, cross-cultural dictator game [Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences]

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