Not really the point of the study. I’m just sayin’…
The study involved 39 kids and researchers in Belfast set up a game that was difficult enough to make cheating seem like the only way to win it. They also set the kids up with the possibility that an invisible princess named Alice might be in the room while they played.
While secretly being videoed, each child played the game either with an adult present, with no one present, or with no one except “Princess Alice” present.
Beforehand, they were all asked if they believed Princess Alice really existed. Of the 11 children who did, only 1 cheated in her “presence”. Five of the seven disbelievers cheated, but not before they’d manually “checked” the Princess didn’t exist by running their hand over the chair to feel if she was there.
“This is an interesting example of an audience effect and the drive to preserve our reputation,” says Chris Frith of University College London, who was not involved in the study. “It’s certainly consistent with the idea that belief in an invisible watcher will increase social-norm conformity.”
Next, the researchers hope to delve deeper by finding out why children behaved well when being watched by Alice: whether it was from fear she would punish them directly, or that she would tell the experimenter.
I wonder if it occurred to the researchers to do another round of this with kids told that the invisible watcher is something other than nobility. Maybe the presumed importance of the invisible person was in play here, too. Would it make a difference if they’d been told it was an invisible janitor or even another kid who might be watching?
It’s certainly interesting in terms of how people in general might decide the best course of action. I’m amused by how many kids checked the chair to see if they could literally “feel” a presence rather than taking a researcher’s word for it (or their own sense about the impossibility of invisible people). I wonder if any of them considered the possibility that she was still in the room but standing.
How many of us need the feeling of being externally monitored in order to “encourage” us to make moral decisions and play fair ? How many choices wind up being made with the intent to save face rather than because the decision itself is the “right” one?