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Brits test use of ‘watching eyes’ posters to deter bike thieves

This kind of inexpensive, “place-based” crime-prevention measure can be remarkably successful in warding off thieves.

These posters were placed over bike racks at Newcastle University in the U.K.

As was reported in the British press in April, the British Transit Police is testing an intriguing low-tech method of reducing bike thefts at its train stations: They are putting large posters with photos of a pair of dark, staring eyes above selected bike racks.

The idea isn’t as silly as it may sound. For as researchers at Newcastle University demonstrated in a study published last December, this kind of inexpensive, “place-based” crime-prevention measure can be remarkably successful in warding off bike thieves.

In fact, such measures can also get people to be more generous and better behaved. Other studies have shown that the “watching eyes” effect encourages people to donate more to charity, to clean up their trays and tables after a cafeteria meal, and to sort their recyclables properly.

The Newcastle study was different, however, in that it used the measure to reduce crime.

‘We are watching you’

For the study, the researchers placed the posters above three bike racks on the Newcastle University’s campus. In addition to the images of the eyes, the posters contained the words “Cycle Thieves: We Are Watching You” and “Operation Crackdown,” as well as the logo of local police.

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As the authors of the study note, bike theft has been a persistent problem at the university. More than 50 bikes are reported stolen each year on campus — despite the presence of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras and regular foot and vehicle security patrols.

The “watching eyes” posters were put up in May 2011. During the next 12 months, there were 68 bike thefts reported on campus. This compared with 70 reported in the 12 months previous to the study. The thefts in the three bike racks with the posters, however, saw a 63 percent drop in thefts: from 39 to 15.

The “control” racks, on the other hand, saw a 65 percent increase in thefts, from 31 to 51. (Two of the 68 thefts that occurred during the study were not included in the final data because police reports on them did not contain location information.)

These results were, of course, both promising and discouraging. They suggest that the “watching eyes” posters deterred crime, but they also indicate that the crime was simply displaced to other locations on campus.

Possible reasons for the results

The study’s authors believe that there may be a neuropsychological reason why the posters were able to unnerve would-be bike thieves.

“We have systems in our brains that are specifically sensitive to eye stimuli,” one of the study’s authors told a reporter for Britain’s ITV television. “We may have this kind of fast, automatic response to eyes that we’re completely unconscious of. This may be why our posters are working so much better than other forms of surveillance, like CCTV.”

But, of course, other reasons may also explain the results, as British psychologist Tom Stafford points out in a recent article for The Conversation, a new academic-oriented news-and-opinion website launched this month in the U.K.

“The problem with this study is that the control condition was not having any sign above bike racks — so we don’t know what it was about the anti-theft sign that had an effect,” writes Stafford. “It could have been the eyes, or it could be message ‘we are watching you.’ Previous research, cited in the study, suggests both elements have an effect.”

“We should be careful about assuming that anything was working via the unconscious or irrational part of the mind,” he adds. “If I were a bike thief and someone was kind enough to warn me that some bikes were being watched, and (by implication) others weren’t, I would rationally choose to do my thieving from an unwatched location.

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In addition, says Stafford, the study’s results might also mean “that bike owners who were more conscious about security left their bikes at the signed locations. Such owners might have better locks and other security measures. Careless bike owners would ignore the signs, and so be more likely to park at unsigned locations and subsequently have their bikes nicked.”

Still, the British — and perhaps those of us on this side of the pond — are likely to see more such crime-prevention interventions.

“They aren’t necessarily the most effective way to change behaviour,” writes Stafford, “but they have a neatness and ‘light touch,’ which means we’re going to keep hearing about this kind of policy.”

The Newcastle University study was published in PLOS One. You can read it in full at that journal’s website. You can read Stafford’s article at The Conversation’s website.