How a Simple Sign Can Help Prevent Bicycle Theft

Human brain architecture is designed for detecting facial features, such as a pair of eyes. This “gaze detection” is hardwired into the human brain, and once offered a helpful evolutionary tool for, say, detecting an enemy lurking nearby.

Furthermore, how well we function in social situations depends on how well we exploit social information we pick up from other people’s facial expressions and eyes. And none of this is under our voluntary control. When gaze detection is activated, the process is instantaneous and automatic. This means it’s possible to subtly “trick” the gaze detection system and alter people’s social behavior.

The Effect of “Watchful Eyes” on Behavior

Bike Thieves Sign

A sign with watching eyes can reduce theft.

Someone’s actual eyes, photos of eyes, drawings of eyes, or even objects that resemble eyes are enough to trip our gaze detection system and affect how we behave socially. And studies have shown that the presence of a mirror in a public place (like a customer service desk) causes people to behave more politely. Not only do we detect the gaze of human eyes, they’re our own human eyes – perhaps a good representation of our own conscience. Essentially, if we feel like we’re being watched, we’re more likely to behave as we are expected to. Could theft prevention be another effect?

A Study of Bicycle Theft Prevention

Newcastle University in the UK consists of a large, urban campus in the midst of a surrounding city. While there are regular foot and vehicle security patrols as well as numerous closed-circuit cameras, bicycle theft has long been a problem. Students and staff use bicycles frequently, locking them to racks and fences on campus. Documented thefts are described by date, time, and location, so that bicycle theft “hot spots” can be more heavily monitored.

Researchers identified three locations where bicycles were frequently stolen, and put up poster-sized (roughly 36 inches by 24 inches) “intervention signs” at eye level where they would be maximally visible. Signs featured male eyes with a direct forward gaze along with the caption, “Cycle Thieves: We Are Watching You,” and the program name “Operation Crackdown” with the local police service logo. The largest high-theft area had three signs, while the other two each had one. The bicycle theft database was monitored for one year after the posters went up.

Theft prevention

Theft prevention can be aided by pictures of human eyes “watching.”

In locations with the posters, bicycle thefts dropped by 62 percent. Unfortunately, thefts at locations where posters were not put up increased by 65 percent, so it would appear that the posters had the effect of shifting criminal activity elsewhere. Researchers think the displacement of bicycle thefts perhaps was due to a perception by thieves that being out of “sight” of the signs was sufficient protection from surveillance.

Depictions of Eyes Make People Behave More Pro-Socially

The sensation of being watched is known to affect many types of human behavior, generally causing people to behave more in keeping with social norms. For example, one study found that images of eyes in highly populated public spaces discouraged people from littering.

In fact, police in the UK regularly use depictions of human eyes as a theft prevention measure, even alongside widespread surveillance monitoring. Eye contact is the most common and powerful form of non-verbal communication, and is often used for expressions of dominance in humans and other species. In other words, eyes send signals about intentions.

Theft prevention

The human brain is good at detecting when we’re being watched, even by simulated eyes.

The psychology of theft prevention has many dimensions, one of which is the powerful effect on humans of the feeling of being watched. Even drawings of eyes are enough to trigger the feeling of being watched and to discourage theft. So if you have the choice of locking your bike up in the presence of a picture of human eyes versus a place without the depiction of eyes, you should probably choose the location with eyes, because they appear to discourage theft.

If it’s too late for that, and you’re trying to get your stolen bicycle or other property back, social media can be a great tool for spreading the word. Stolen 911 offers you a terrific starting place for creating a “digital fingerprint” of your property and increasing its chances for being recovered. And you can post a stolen item securely, and for free right now if you want.

Marc Hinch is the creator of Stolen 911.  He can be reached on “the Twitter” @heyhinch.

By Stolen 911

Stolen 911 is an user created stolen property database used to return stolen items since 2007.