Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Big momma is watching you

I clicked onto the Newcastle University website today to find a pair of rather malevolent eyes looking into mine.  I was inclined to close the browser immediately.  Those eyes made me feel distinctly uneasy.  But I was interested to see that they related to some research carried out by Professor Melissa Bateson and Professor Daniel Nettle of the Centre for Behaviour and Evolution at Newcastle, and Ken Nott of the University’s security team.  Bicycles are regularly stolen from racks on the University campus, but by putting pictures of eyes and short anti-theft messages above the racks the researchers found that they could reduce the number of thefts by 62%.  Unfortunately thefts from racks that were not “guarded” by the disembodied eyes went up, suggesting that the thieves had moved elsewhere, presumably to an area where they didn’t feel they were being watched.  What would have happened, I wonder, if all racks had sported these off-putting glares?  Perhaps the bicycle thieves would have overcome their scruples and got out their bolt-cutters anyway.  But the research is interesting, not only for its potential effects on crime, but because it highlights our reactions to eyes, and the wider importance they have for us as human beings.  It surely can’t be coincidence that the panda, with its eyes so clearly emphasised by black markings, is such a popular image for conservation?  Big-eyed creatures such as bush babies are generally regarded as being particularly cute and owls, with their clear, forward-looking gaze, also seem to strike a chord in a way that other birds do not.  Human babies have eyes that are disproportionately large and we know that eye contact between mother and baby seems to be important.  It promotes the attachment without which a baby may not survive.  It seems then that being looked at can be reassuring as well as threatening.  So why is that stare from above the cycle rack so threatening?   Are the thieves perhaps worried that it might be their mum who is watching when they steal that bike?

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