Under a magnifying glass: how video surveillance affects our thinking
Face recognition is increasingly being used in many countries around the world. As a result, people are almost constantly monitored by cameras – in shops, on public transport or in workplaces.
The use of this technology looks justified if it helps law enforcement agencies track down criminals and makes the lives of ordinary citizens safer. But how does constant surveillance affect the citizens who are supposed to be protected from criminals?
It is easy to imagine that widespread video surveillance will change human behavior. Often these changes are for the better. For example, studies have shown that people who are monitored donate more to charities and wash their hands more often to prevent disease transmission. These positive results benefit everyone, so increased surveillance seems to have a positive impact on society as a whole – as long as confidentiality rules are strictly adhered to.
Magnifying glass effect
My research, however, points to the consequences of observation that have so far been neglected in public debate. We ran several experiments and found that observation changes not only what people do, but also how they think. In particular, when people know they are being watched, they look at themselves through the eyes of the observer (or through a camera lens).
When two points of view – the observer and their own – are superimposed, people feel as if under a magnifying glass, and their own actions seem to them exaggerated. For example, we asked some volunteers to eat some chips in front of the camera, while others ate the same food and the same amount without supervision. The supervised participants subsequently thought they ate more because their behavior was as if magnified by a magnifying glass.
This may seem like an innocuous circumstance to accompany increased surveillance given its other benefits. However, when we observed people, we also found more disturbing thinking patterns. We asked volunteers to take a test in which they inevitably gave incorrect answers. Participants who were under camera lenses during the test felt that they gave more incorrect answers than volunteers without supervision, although in reality there was no difference between the two groups.
Thus, the supervised participants mentally exaggerated their mistakes. The same thing happened when we studied badminton players after team tournaments. The players on the losing teams thought they were more personally responsible for the defeat if there were a lot of spectators watching the game. Any mistakes in the game seemed more significant to them if they were watched. In other words, observation has changed the way people think about their behavior.
We do not yet know what this magnifying glass effect means for people’s thoughts and feelings in the long run. Feeling like mistakes and failures are hanging over your head can undermine your self-confidence and self-esteem. And small flaws with constant monitoring look more serious. A person who loves to leave the house in their pajamas for a fast food meal may recall the shame and disgust they feel when caught doing this.
As video surveillance becomes more prevalent, privacy-conscious citizens are assured that most camera recordings are never viewed or erased after a while. However, we are just beginning to understand the psychological implications of increased surveillance. This influence on people’s thoughts and feelings may persist even after the film is erased from the camera.