Your eyes were watching you.
I live with a lot of faces—a function of working towards painting every person’s portrait in the whole world! I like being surrounded by my paintings: there’s something comforting in the faces themselves. It’s like my friends are always around, encouraging and reassuring me. As it turns out, I’m not just being eccentric when I say that painted faces have a real effect on me. A team of psychologists at the University of Newcastle has given scientific weight to my musings.
In 2006, researchers Melissa Bateson, Daniel Nettle, and Gilbert Roberts conducted an experiment at the Psychology Department’s coffee counter. This quick, in-house beverage stop was self-serve, and it was supposed to work on the honor system, with users leaving money according to a posted price sheet. The only problem was that the total at the end of the day never seemed to match the change in the supply of coffee, milk, and tea. Users simply weren’t leaving the payments which were called for by the list displayed above the counter.
So, every week for ten weeks, the researchers tried putting up a different image alongside the price list. One week they would put up a pair of eyes; the next, it was a bouquet flowers. Alternating eyes and flowers and using different images each time, the team wanted to determine whether or not the suggestion of someone keeping an eye on their colleagues would make them more honest. For the images, the researchers photocopied images of magazine photos, cropping the faces to show just the eye/eyebrow region and choosing five sets of eyes which differed in gender and expression but which always gazed out at the viewer.
At the end of their study, Bateson, Nettle, and Roberts found that when eyes appeared next to the price list, their colleagues left 2.76 times more money than when they only had the flowers to contend with. It would seem that the perception of being accountable for their actions (even to a pair of photocopied eyes!) made all the difference in the coffee counter users.*
All of which isn’t to say that painted faces should ever keep you from your self-serve caffeine hit, but rather that portraits are a highly underestimated genre. Since images of faces function a lot like real faces in our subconscious, a portrait can act as a touchstone for its subject, a way for a person to keep in conversation with her-him self. An image of your face hanging on your wall isn’t about feeling like someone’s watching you: it’s about looking at yourself.
*I learned about this experiment from Ada Brunstein’s Eye To I, her 2007 thesis for MIT’s Science Writing Program. For more in formation about Brunstein and what she does, visit adabrunstein.com.