November 26, 2013

We Are Watching You

I have Philosophy Now to thank for this tip. (Bike theft is everywhere, people, I'm telling you.) The news department of the May/June issue of the magazine included an item—titled "Sartre's Gaze in Action?"—about a study in which researchers placed posters of eyes above bike racks in an attempt to deter theft.

It turns out that a full account of the study—conducted by Daniel Nettle and colleagues at the Centre for Behaviour & Evolution at the UK's Newcastle University—is freely available online, so of course I checked it out.

In what they describe as "a simple, cheap anti-bicycle theft intervention using signs designed to evoke the psychology of being watched," Nettle et al. installed durable signs at three locations on the Newcastle campus where the incidence of bike theft was known to be high. Ninety by sixty centimeters (that's about three feet by two feet), the signs "featured a black and white image of a pair of male eyes with direct forward gaze" and bore, along with the logo of the local police service, the headline "Cycle Thieves: We Are Watching You" and the name "Operation Crackdown."


When researchers compared the number of bikes stolen from under the watchful eyes during the year after the posters were installed with the number of bikes stolen from the same locations during the previous year, the results were startling: Bicycle thefts had decreased by 62% at the experimental locations!

Unfortunately it seems that the decrease is attributable to what's called "displacement of offending." This is just what it sounds like: An individual inclined to steal a bike but spooked by the pair of disembodied eyes staring down at him from above one bike rack simply moves on to an eyes-free rack and steals a bike there. In the Newcastle study, bicycle thefts in the control locations—racks around campus without posters—increased by 65% after the posters went up.

So what's to be done? Despite the displacement of offending (what would happen if the posters were ubiquitous??), Nettle et al. contend that a "cheap sign-based intervention" similar to the one they tested could be effective, particularly if "combined with probabilistic actual surveillance, to reinforce the perception of being watched with occasional evidence that this perception is real."

As an individual cyclist, though? I don't know about you, but I'm hatching plans to get an enlargement of the most intimidating stare I can find printed on a foldable placard I can affix above my bicycle when I lock it up around town... (Reminiscent of the cardboard cop, eh?)

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