Watchful EyeAt the moment I’m reading, SuperFreakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.  It’s a fun book if you like random facts and learning about why people actually do things (at least according to the principles of economics). It is an easy read, and I recommend it.  And it was while reading a chapter entitled “Unbelievable Stories about Apathy and Altruism” that I came across this tidbit:

At the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in England, a psychology professor named Melissa Bateson surreptitiously ran an experiment in her own department’s break room.  Customarily, faculty members paid for coffee and other drinks by dropping money into an “honesty box.”  Each week Bateson posted a new price list.  The prices never changed, but the small photograph atop the list did.  On odd weeks, there was a picture of flowers; on even weeks, a picture of human eyes.  When the eyes were watching, Bateson’s colleagues left nearly three times as much money in the honesty box.  So the next time you laugh when a bird is frightened off by a silly scarecrow, remember that scarecrows work on human beings too.

After reading this I almost immediately thought of the call for openness in government and all the endless lip service to bipartisan efforts to improve the way Washington does business.

Not to be overly cynical, but I don’t think those divides are going away anytime soon, so what if, as a stopgap measure, we just painted eyes on the inside of the capital?  You could put them on the roof, inside of drawers, on desks, over doors, and even in all the offices.  Maybe then those in power would always have the feeling that someone was watching them and unconsciously strive to do better.

Another benefit to this idea is that it will put people to work.  It will take a lot of artists to make that many eyes, and then you need to transport the finished products to DC or arrange to allow people to work on site with the supplies they need. Those kinds of logistics will require a fair amount of administrative and budgetary oversight.  Also because these are historical buildings, you must have people there to inspect all the work and materials to insure that the eyes do not damage other artwork of historical and cultural value; then you will have to have professionals come and remove the eyes from time to time, because it won’t do to just have them always in the same spot.  They have to move so lawmakers can’t quite remember which eyes are fake and which are real.  Think of the paranoia that would cause them, and how that could fuel productivity!

There are other physiological implications and locations to consider as well.  For example, in the Treasury offices you could make all the eyes angry and look like they are boring holes into the very floor of the building.  That way the people handling our money will know just what we think of the job they have been doing.  The same goes at the White House.  Only there you can install disbelieving and disenchanted eyes of children who have just found out that there really is not a Santa Clause.  The guilt of shattered hopes and dreams could then haunt those who work there and encourage them to do a better job, if for no other reason than who wants to look at those accusatory stares all day, every day.

However, the opposite approach can also work.  Lets say there is a department, in this case we will say the Department of Transportation, and lets also say that they find a way to not only improve the existing Interstate highway system, but they do so without coast overruns and long delays (this is just a hypothetical after all).  Then you could paint bright, happy eyes that have that approving come-hither-you-sexy-efficient-and-wholly-unexpected-mac-daddy look in the eye.  This would not only improve the workers self-confidence, but might have a spillover effect on other departments that want to get more pleasant eyes in their building.

But then one thinks, why should it stop with just eyes…the well-placed ear could also do wonders; although, there are no studies that I’ve found where the only encouragement to be more honest is a painted ear, but it could be yet another way to employee people. And who knows what a study devoted to the that phenomenon could yield: it may even recommend that the best way to get people act as they are supposed to is to have other people there checking up on them.  Wait…someone pass the paint. We are going to need to make a whole lot of eyes!

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