Clint Eastwood’s rambling monologue with an empty chair has prompted Jesse Bering to think about imaginary friends — the kind who, if you believe they are real, watch you at all times. It’s a creepy sort of surveillance that has the salubrious effect of deterring those who otherwise may be tempted to cheat.
For years, Bering has been testing these effects in the lab by telling potential cheaters that the ghost of a girl named Alice inhabits the room in which they are to perform a graded task. Cheating is always an option and the children are told they will be left alone to complete the task. Kids who believe that Alice is real are much less likely to cheat.
In this study from last year, Bering and colleagues tested the hypothesis that “when we’re tempted to do something we know we shouldn’t, the illusion of a supernatural watcher should meaningfully influence our behavioral decision-making.” The test required the researchers to create “a laboratory condition that, at least in a very general sense, reflected the temptations that both children and adults face every day.” As expected, those who believed that Alice was in the testing room were less likely to cheat. They didn’t yield to temptation.
Bering’s results are robust: when we are alone and have an opportunity to cheat for our advantage, we are less likely to do so if we think we are being watched by an invisible agent. In many societies, this means that God is watching (and potentially punishing). With these reliable results in hand, Bering then imagines how this might have worked in our ancestral past:
If our ancestors thought that they were alone and/or could get away with something, but in fact were underestimating other people’s finding out, then the illusion of a concerned “invisible agent” would have helped them to inhibit selfish, impulsive decisions that could have seriously compromised their reputations, and hence their genetic interests. Sure, Princess Alice probably wasn’t haunting the African savannas in which our ancient relatives were having their neural systems pruned by evolutionary forces tens of thousands of years ago, but there were almost certainly other fabricated creatures just like her (e.g., the spirits of dead loved ones, supernatural deities).
It is at this juncture that Bering and I part ways. While supernatural surveillance did in fact come to play a prominent role in social control, this probably occurred more recently — during the long course of the Neolithic transition which began approximately 12,000 years ago. In pre-Neolithic or foraging societies, supernatural surveillance may have existed (invisible agents certainly populated the minds of our ancestors) but it probably didn’t play a major role in cheating deterrence.
Why? Because our hunting-gathering ancestors lived in small residential groups where isolation or privacy, which is required for cheating without being detected, was extremely difficult. This is something that I addressed in this post, where I quoted George Bird Grinnell’s book on the Cheyenne:
The Indian lived in public. He was constantly under the eyes of the members of his tribe, and most of his doings were known to them. As he was eager for the approval of his fellows, and greedy of their praise, so public opinion promised the reward he hoped for and threatened the punishment he feared.
Grinnell’s observation applies with equal force to other tribes and hunter-gatherers. He is not the only ethnohistorian to comment on the near total lack of privacy which is characteristic of foraging societies. When you are constantly being watched by actual people and they know what you are doing, there really aren’t many opportunities to cheat. Actual agents are much more effective enforcers than invisible agents.
None of this is to say that supernatural surveillance is ineffective or that it played no role in human history. In most instances, cheating requires privacy; Bering’s experiments are designed with this in mind — children are left all alone in a room. In historical terms, people gained privacy (in rooms) only after they built houses and restricted access to them. This happened only when and where people settled down, which is to say that supernatural surveillance would have become important in the Neolithic rather than the Paleolithic.
Piazza J, Bering JM, & Ingram G (2011). “Princess Alice is watching you”: children’s belief in an invisible person inhibits cheating. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 109 (3), 311-20 PMID: 21377689