Idling your car unnecessarily pollutes the environment, squanders gas, and offends others’ ears. It’s particularly reprehensible in foul-aired places like London, where cars helped push the city past its yearly pollution quota in just one week last January. Can anything be done to curb this wasteful, boorish behavior?
Some researchers believe so, and their weird solution boils down to a couple of tweaks to road signs: adding “watching eyes” and appealing to the “private self.” Based on principles of behavioral psychology, the researchers believe images of eyeballs and requests for drivers to think about themselves are effective at getting drivers to cut their engines, as described in the latest issue of Environment and Behavior.
Rose Meleady, a psychologist at the University of East Anglia, and other U.K. researchers are the latest to explore the influencing power of eyeballs, something that’s long fascinated the region’s research community. Previous studies have suggested that signs with pictures of “watching eyes” are effective at decreasing littering, increasing charitable donations, and preventing bike theft. The reigning theory is that these images make people feel like they’re under scrutiny (perhaps by Big Brother?), and thus they behave in ways more beneficial to society.
Meleady’s group might well be the first to probe the eyes’ effect on motorists. They chose for their experiment a busy railroad crossing in Canterbury, about 50 miles east of London, where pollution levels at the time barely met the E.U.’s target. Motorists here faced with passing trains wait an average of 2 minutes to cross. Nearby is posted a sign from the city council, stating, “Please switch off your engine when barriers are down to help improve air quality.”