The Observer Effect: How It Affects Human Conduct

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You

By Paul Rosenzweig, The George Washington University Law School

In sociology, there is an idea that people’s behavior changes when they are aware that they are being observed. This is known as the “observer effect.” Why is that? Does the observer effect enable a person to get a better understanding of other people?

Image showing a group discussion.
A discussion can lose its vigor or come to a halt if the group members realize their discussion is being recorded. (Image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

The Panopticon Effect

Imagine an individual having dinner with his or her friends. The conversation covers various grounds such as politics, economics, sports, travel, and more. The individual, then, takes out his or her smartphone, puts it on the table, and declares that he or she would like to record their conversation. On hearing this statement, the conversation would most likely come to a halt. What is the reason for the abrupt end of the conversation?

The answer can be found in the example of the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who proposed erecting a jail in a circular form with a watchman at the center, and the residents of the jail on the periphery. In this way, one person could keep a careful eye on everyone else. Bentham called this building the Panopticon, and the reaction of those under observation has come to be known as the “Panopticon Effect”.

The Effect of Observation on One’s Conduct

Observation can have both positive and negative effects on a person’s conduct. It is seen that most Western governments do not take prurient interests in their citizens’ private lives, and a wide range of safeguards are normally erected to maintain this healthy barrier.

But, social science states that harm can happen even when the government is not actively looking over the people’s shoulders. There is a self-editing effect that arises from the mere perception of scrutiny. There may not be a lot of self-editing among many people, but sometimes those who lead lives on the edges of social convention—politically, culturally, or behaviorally—may edit their actions out of a concern for how they will be perceived.

Learn more about surveillance in America.

Observer Effect: Cognizable Harm to People’s Liberty

Image showing a surveillance room.
Surveillance in workplaces can be characterized as a harm to people’s liberty. (Image: tsyklon/Shutterstock)

The specter of surveillance and its effects on behavior can be characterized by some as cognizable harm to their liberty. One study, in New Jersey during the 1990s, found a direct correlation between how workers perceived surveillance in the workplace and how they assessed their own privacy, self-esteem, and workplace communications. The greater the level of perceived surveillance, the more negative the work environment was thought to be.

In the 1950s, at the height of anti-Communist feelings during the Cold War, government employees and professors in Washington, D.C., came under closer scrutiny. As a result, many of them withdrew from non-governmental organizations, canceled subscriptions to magazines, declined to participate in petition drives, and became more cautious in their conversations with strangers. This reflects, on a smaller scale, the same reaction to surveillance as seen in other nations where surveillance is overt and more pervasive.

This is a transcript from the video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You. Watch it now on The Great Courses Plus.

The Observer Effect Is More Widespread Than Intrusive Surveillance

The observer effect, however, is more widespread than what arises from intrusive surveillance. One study, by the Australian academic Shane Dawson—who specializes in social network analysis—looked at how institutional surveillance technologies affected student behavior in educational environments.

Dawson found that the students’ Internet-browsing behaviors, as well as the range of topics they discussed in online forums, and the writing styles they employed, were influenced by the degree to which they understood their activities to be under surveillance by the educational institution.

Roughly half of the students knew, for example, that the professors monitored student discussion forums for inappropriate comments, and those students who were aware that they were subject to such scrutiny sometimes changed what they posted, and how they posted it.

Learn more about the Charlie Hebdo tragedy.

The Malign Effects of the Observer Effect

Image showing a man surrounded by reporters.
Public shaming is one of the malign effects of public observation. (Image: Carlos Yudica/Shutterstock)

In today’s ever more transparent society, which is galvanized by the proliferation of social media, the malign effects of public observation are often on display—most notably through acts of public shaming.

The British journalist Jon Ronson cataloged some aberrant instances in his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. He tells the story of Justine Sacco—a New Yorker, who tweeted an offensive joke to her followers just before boarding a long airplane flight to South Africa.

Her tweet was retweeted, and it went viral until she became the number one trending topic on Twitter with millions watching. As one person wrote before she landed, 18 hours later, “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In real-time—before she even knows she’s getting fired.”

She did lose her job and suffered months of online harassment—far harsher punishment, than one very poorly thought-out tweet deserved.

Common Questions about the Observer Effect

Q: What is the observer effect?

The idea that people’s behavior changes when they are aware that they are being observed is known as the observer effect.

Q: According to a study in New Jersey during the 1990s, what was the result of surveillance in the workplace?

According to a study in New Jersey during the 1990s, the greater the level of perceived surveillance in one’s workplace, the more negative the work environment was thought to be.

Q: Identify one of the malign effects of public observation in today’s society.

One of the most notable malign effects of public observation in today’s society is the act of public shaming.

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