December 17, 2013 | 1
Perhaps my favorite psychology article of all time, is Edward Titchener’s, “The Feeling of Being Stared At,” which appeared in Science on December 23, 1898 (almost 115 years ago exactly!). I give it a good read any time I am in need of inspiration, which has been lacking majorly during these dreary winter days. Despite Titchener’s vast contributions to psychology, this particular article has been cited only 38 times–it is an unheralded classic.
In it, Titchener describes a phenomenon with which many of us are familiar: the idea that we know when we are being watched from behind. The primary reason for this phenomenon, Titchener suggests, is “We are all of us more or less ‘nervous’ about our backs.” He then describes an anecdotal example of this anxiety:
A friend of mine who learned to dance after he had arrived at man’s estate, told me that it was positively painful to him to turn his back upon the instructor (even during a private lesson), and that it was as positive a relief when he was allowed to face the instructor’s back, and posture unseen.
Titchener proceeds to describe the phenomenon as a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby an individual in the front of a populated room, believing him/herself to be watched, begins fidgeting, thereby attracting attention from the people in the back of the room. This individual’s belief in being stared at is thus confirmed. Titchener closes by saying that he has ran a few experiments on this phenomenon that have shown the belief to be illusory (I long for days when you could simply gloss over your methods, and just say “trust me”).
Fifteen years later, J.E. Coover followed up on ‘the feeling of being stared at’ with an article of the same name. In it, Coover reported a series of questionnaire studies indicating that a majority of people report experiencing this feeling, and then described an experiment (so elegant that The New York Times wrote about it!) testing the illusory nature of the phenomenon. In the experiment, Coover examined 10 people who reported holding the belief, and subjected them each to a 100-trial test in which they sat with their backs to Coover. Coover rolled a die 100 times and every time the roll was odd, he stared at the subject for 15 seconds. If the roll was even, he did not stare for 15 seconds. After each of 15-second trials, the subject reported whether or not they were stared at. The roll of the die produced 51.8% odd rolls, and thus Coover was able to randomize effectively staring vs. no-staring trials. Subjects were able to guess correctly 50.2% of the time, virtually exactly at chance. Thus, the phenomenon of being stared at proved yet again to be illusory.
Now, why do I find this phenomenon, and the article that proclaimed its discovery, so tremendously underrated and unfairly neglected? The pervasiveness of the feeling of being stared at suggests an important adaptive benefit for maintaining it (despite its illusory nature)–one potential benefit is that the mutual experience of surveillance likely enforces ethical behavior. If we all believe we are being watched, we are more likely to abide by the rules and to follow social norms. I am reminded of Norenzayan and Shariff’s groundbreaking article on why larger societies tend to be more likely to believe in more “moral” Gods (supernatural agents capable of rewarding and punishing humans). This is because when a society expands to an outsized degree, people no longer become capable of monitoring each other individually; thus, they develop a shared belief in some agent capable of watching over everyone–most often, this agent takes the form of a religious being, which then leads people to cooperate because they believe they are being monitored. Perhaps the ‘feeling of being stared at’ represents a secular superstition that offers the same function.
This is all not to mention that the experience described in Titchener’s article provides a basis for other tremendously important phenomena such as the “sinister attribution error” (the erroneous belief that we are the target of others’ actions), the “spotlight effect (the tendency to overestimate the extent to which others notice our behavior or appearance),” as well as paranoid cognition, egocentrism, and self-monitoring more generally. Given that it took 15 years for psychologists to follow up on the original article, it is unsurprising that over a century later, we psychologists have continued to neglect it. And yet while being “more or less nervous about our backs” may sound a bit silly or trivial, the implications of this pervasive superstition may be much more important than we have previously considered.
Photo courtesy of Juan Eduardo De Cristofaro via Wikimedia Commons