What is the benefit of watching someone? Observing a person's behavior in a social dilemma may provide information about her qualities as a social partner for potential collaboration in the future: Does she contribute to a public good? Does she punish free riders? Does she reward contributors? Do I want to collaborate with her? Direct observation is more reliable than trusting gossip. Being watched, however, is not neutral: An individual's behavior may change in the presence of an observer (the “audience effect”), and the observed may be tempted to behave as expected to manage her reputation. Watchful eyes may induce altruistic behavior in the observed. Even a mechanistic origin of recognizing watchful eyes in the brain has been described as cortical orienting circuits that mediate nuanced and context-dependent social attention. However, watching also may induce an “arms race” of signals between observers and the observed. The observer should take into account that the behavior of the observed may change in response to observation and therefore should conceal her watching; the observed should be very alert to faint signals of being watched but should avoid any sign of having recognized that watching is occurring. The interaction between observing and being observed has implications for the large body of recent research on human altruism. Especially when a conflict of interest exists between observers and observed, they may use a rich toolbox of sophisticated strategies both to manipulate signals and to uncover manipulations.The authors observe that in deciding on social partners observed cooperativeness is decisive, and severe punishment is hidden. Here is their abstract:
Conflicts of interest between the community and its members are at the core of human social dilemmas. If observed selfishness has future costs, individuals may hide selfish acts but display altruistic ones, and peers aim at identifying the most selfish persons to avoid them as future social partners. An interaction involving hiding and seeking information may be inevitable. We staged an experimental social-dilemma game in which actors could pay to conceal information about their contribution, giving, and punishing decisions from an observer who selects her future social partners from the actors. The observer could pay to conceal her observation of the actors. We found sophisticated dynamic strategies on either side. Actors hide their severe punishment and low contributions but display high contributions. Observers select high contributors as social partners; remarkably, punishment behavior seems irrelevant for qualifying as a social partner. That actors nonetheless pay to conceal their severe punishment adds a further puzzle to the role of punishment in human social behavior. Competition between hiding and seeking information about social behavior may be even more relevant and elaborate in the real world but usually is hidden from our eyes.