Tangents From a Psychologist III: Whose Eyes Are Watching You? Jamming, 05/06/2015

I originally planned to end this series of posts yesterday. Then I read some more of Ariely that got me thinking about more tangents, this time involving how his research can, in some small way, contribute to the legitimation of the surveillance state. 

Yeah, this is going to be a bit of a trip. But there’s something here, I think.

He describes a very minor experiment in his long and complex series of works on honesty and moral behaviour. It’s about an office change jar for a tea kettle. A lot of offices have a little jar or a bowl where workers can toss change whenever they make a fresh pot of tea or coffee. Just a quarter or two each time to subsidize the kitchen supplies budget. 

Will they ever stop watching me?
It’s a gesture, but it’s also linked with honesty and good behaviour. If you make a pot of tea or coffee, you throw a couple of quarters in the jar. It’s much less than you pay for coffee at a Starbucks, Tim Horton’s, Second Cup, or Aroma. And it’s for the benefit of you and all your fellow workers. But you don’t always throw change in the jar when you make each pot, or when you take a mug of coffee from a pot someone else just made.

Ariely considers this a minor immorality, and thinking about his experiment reminds me of another philosophical criticism I could make of his work. I also consider this criticism very sketchy precisely because it’s a philosophical criticism and I don’t know how appropriate it is to make it. It has to do with what exactly we’re following when we put our change in the coffee jar. 

So here’s the experiment. It has to do with how images posted above the coffee jar in an office affect people’s frequency of contribution. Posting a generic image of flowers above the jar prompted no significant change in the level of people’s contributions. What was most effective in promoting compliance to the unspoken rule of contributing to the subsidy jar for coffee and tea?

An image of staring, accusatory eyes

He writes that even the feeling of being watched encourages compliance to morality. We act more morally when we have the impression of being surveilled.

This is, of course, a terrible suggestion given our current political climate. It doesn’t uncritically endorse the surveillance state, since there are no actual cameras in the image of those hungry eyes constantly watching you while you make your coffee. But it may imply that an elaborate conspiracy to make the country’s entire population believe that it’s constantly being watched will be just as effective.

Why yes, they are watching you. Pop music is creepy.
It’s Michel Foucault’s panopticon, basically.* And it’s utterly anti-democratic. Either it’s genuinely complete surveillance over real life, partial universal surveillance in which everyone is aware that government agents could be watching them all the time, or an elaborate conspiracy theory that’s universally believed so that everyone believes they’re being watched all the time without the government having to spend any money on real surveillance. The overall effect is governance by fear of authority.

* Yes, I know Jeremy Bentham thought of it first, but Foucault developed the elaborate framework of conceptual analysis that lets us understand the panopticon not just as a weird way to build a prison, but as the conceptual framework for a billion-dollar international security apparatus. 

It reminds me of my major problem with Joseph Heath’s proposals to make people more rational in their everyday lives: they all require state micro-engineering of everyone’s environments to rid them of deceptive features that disrupt our reasoning abilities.

Ariely expresses his interpretation of this experiment as part of a process of investigating human psychology. He never goes so far as Heath did in Enlightenment 2.0, and make proposals for government action. But the discovery itself is troubling. If we’re only moral insofar as we’re affected by the subliminal suggestion of an authority watching us, that doesn’t leave much hope for genuine ground-up social progress.

But I think there’s one angle where I can make a legitimate critique of Ariely’s ideas. I’m not trying to walk into his disciplinary territory, as I’ve been nervously stepping over the last couple of days after finishing Dishonesty. Now, I’m dragging Ariely into the territory of philosophy, and asking just what people are really following when he posts those intense eyes above the change jar.

Because I don’t think it’s morality. . . . To be continued.

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