Workplace Coffee and the Subversive Unconscious

By John Doris
Professor of Philosophy

If you’ve worked in an office, you’re probably familiar with “honor box” coffee service. Everyone helps themselves to brewed coffee, adds to the lounge’s growing filth, and deposits a nominal sum in the honor box, with the accumulated proceeds being used to replenish supplies. Notoriously, this system often devolves into a tragedy of the commons, where too many people drink without paying. Unless some philanthropic soul goes out of pocket to cover free riders, the enterprise goes in the red, and everyone’s back to extortionate prices at the café.

Bateson's note.Fortunately, the tragedy of the honor box may be readily ameliorated; if images of eyes are placed prominently near the coffee service, deposits increase. Or so Melissa Bateson and her colleagues (2006) found: The take in a psychology department’s honor box (computed by amount contributed per liter of milk consumed) was nearly three times as large when the posted payment instructions were augmented with an image of eyes as when they were augmented with an image of flowers.

On the standard interpretation, the eyes remind people that they may be seen — not so easy to stiff the honor box in front of a disapproving colleague — and pay a reputational cost for free riding. Since human beings are social organisms sensitive to reputational considerations, they may thereby be moved to donate.

The Eyes Have It: honor box contributions higher with eyes than with flowers (pounds paid per liter of milk consumed as a function of week and image type)Participants in such studies are not typically debriefed, so we don’t know for sure what they were thinking. But the most likely reading is that people are, in a sense, not thinking much of anything. That is, the “watching eyes effect” is supposed to involve an unconscious, effortless processing, rather than conscious, concerted calculation; the eyes are hypothesized to influence behavior without those influenced being aware.

If people aren’t typically aware of the watching eyes effect when they’re being affected by it, what might they think, if they found out afterward? A cheapskate with a policy of free riding might feel a little resentful; he’s been made to do something he doesn’t judge to be sensible. A more upright sort might think she’s done the right thing, but not for the right reasons; doing it because you’re watched is not the same thing as doing it because it’s decent, honest or fair. Those who favor fair play only when it burnishes their reputation might also have qualms, since “watching eyes” may influence people in conditions conducive to anonymity (e.g., Haley and Fessler 2005: 250). In none of these cases does “I did it because of the eye spots” sound like a compelling rationale.

The watching eyes effect is part of a large family of studies identifying influences on behavior that are both unconscious and unexpected. In sum: You may not know what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it, and if you did know, you might not like it. Evidently, the subversive unconscious is everywhere at work (though these workings may be more absurd than Oedipal). Should you take this prospect seriously, you ought begin to worry about who — or what — is running your show. You should worry, if I may be excused a bit of philosophy-speak, about the extent to which you exert rational control over your behavior: Maybe the “rational animal” isn’t rational at all.

I don’t expect you to sign on up for this anxiety after only a few paragraphs. I do expect you’ll contract some unease after reading a few chapters of my new book, Talking to Our Selves (Oxford 2015). But don’t be scared off: In the end I there argue that we do exert rational control over our lives, the multitude of disturbing scientific findings suggesting the contrary notwithstanding. Human beings live as rational animals, after all, but in ways weirdly — and wonderfully — different than is traditionally supposed.

About the author
John M. Doris is professor in the Philosophy–Neuroscience–Psychology Program and Philosophy Department, Washington University in St. Louis. He works at the intersection of cognitive science, moral psychology and philosophical ethics, authoring or co-authoring papers for such venues as Noûs, Philosophical Studies, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Cognition, Bioethics, Journal of Research in Personality, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy. Doris has been awarded fellowships from Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities, Princeton’s University Center for Human Values, the National Humanities Center, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the National Endowment for the Humanities (three times), and is a winner of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology’s Stanton Prize. He authored Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior (Cambridge, 2002) and Talking to Our Selves: Reflection, Ignorance, and Agency (Oxford 2015). With his colleagues in the Moral Psychology Research Group, he edited The Moral Psychology Handbook (Oxford, 2010). He is presently beginning a collection of his papers, Character Trouble: Undisciplined Essays on Persons and Circumstance, for Oxford University Press. At Washington University, Doris’ pedagogy has been recognized with an Outstanding Mentor Award from the Graduate Student Senate and the David Hadas Teaching Award for excellence in the instruction of first year undergraduates.