Field of Science

People say they're good if they think God is watching

If you subliminally remind people about God, it can change their behaviour in all sorts of interesting ways. It can make people more honest, more obedient, more punishing, and even more persevering against impossible odds. And although it's not certain, it seems to work for atheists as well as the religious.

Nobody really knows quite how this effect works, but one possibility is that reminding people about God creates in them the sensation that they are being watched. If people feel like they're being watched, their behaviour changes markedly (even simply stick a photo of a pair of eyes in their peripheral vision, and they cheat less and condemn more).

Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan, at the University of British Columbia, wanted to test this theory. One way they did this was to prime undergrads with thoughts of god - explicitly, not subliminally. They primed others with thoughts of other people, or nothing in particular.

Then they asked them questions about how self-conscious they felt ("Right now I am self-conscious about the way I look," "Right now I am concerned about what other people think of me," “Right now, I am concerned about the way I present myself.")

As you can see in the graph, the results they got were different for believers and non-believers.

Believers had low self-consciousness in the control condition, and their self-awareness was increased by both the People and the God priming.

Non-believers had higher self-consciousness in the control condition, which was unaffected by the people prime and actually went down with the God prime!

They also ran another experiment, which looked at something called 'socially desirable responding'. That's the tendency we all have to say the 'right thing'.

For example, if you ask people if they are "sometimes irritated by people who ask favours of me" they will usually say no - whereas, in reality of course, any normal person is sometimes irritated in that situation. We know we shouldn't be, but we are.

What Gervais found in his undergraduate subjects was that believers tend not to give socially desirable responses, unless they get primed first with thoughts of God. Non-believers, on the other hand, were more likely to give the socially desirable response without priming, and priming didn't have any affect on them.

What these studies show is that god primes really do seem to trigger responses that you would expect if people felt they were being watched. That's certainly the case for believers, although perhaps not so for non-believers.
Gervais, W., & Norenzayan, A. (2012). Like a camera in the sky? Thinking about God increases public self-awareness and socially desirable responding Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48 (1), 298-302 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.09.006

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I'm quite interested in this phenomenon of the "overseer". One sees it as a separate function in early poly-theistic societies: for example the god Mitra/Mithra in Indo-Iranian culture. They believed in an ordered universe and Mitra was one of the overseers who maintained that order - particular the contracts between people.

    It seems as though in small societies everyone knowns what everyone else is up to, but beyond a certain size (150?) there is no way to keep track of everyone, and there are always some people that will exploit the opportunity presented by reduced chances of getting caught. And we saw this in the London looting as well! So a god gets the job of surveillance. And in monotheism this is just one role of the swiss-army-knife god. In India the function is depersonalised and becomes the job of karma - which is just part of how the universe works. Same function though.

    Michel Foucault wrote a lot about how the surveillance function of god and his priests has moved into the secular world, particularly into the medical profession. Also the government keeps tabs on us. More recently it is CCTV cameras, and in the last few years personal phone video cameras.

  2. @ Tom,

    (1) Shouldn't the Control bars have their confidence intervals extending down into the bar like the other bars?

    (2) Please refresh my memory, but if the confidence interval bars overlap, then there is good reason to believe that these groups are potentially the same. All these confidence intervals overlap.

    (3) But if their conclusion is true, I wonder if there is a sub-group of atheists like natural atheists -- those who never entertained a religion-- who are less affected, whereas deconverted atheists (like myself) are more easily effected by the watching prime.

    @ Jayarava,

    I wager you have heard of Pascal Boyer's book "Explaining Religion" -- this watcher god phenomena is explored well there too.

    You stirred a sad smile in me as I thought of surveillance cameras displacing Yahweh (one of the swiss-army-knife blades). In China (where I lived), I saw the all-watchful eye of the communist party alter people horrendously (the judgemental side was terrifying), and as that has fallen apart slowly, the complex result is confusing. Likewise in another one of my past homes, Japan, I saw how the culture built in a non-theist watchful eye which maintained control. "Meiwaku" 迷惑 (めいわく) is a word in Japanese that illustrates this pervasive group control. If I remember correctly, you know a lot of Japanese.

    My contention is that many of us, due to our cognitive illusions, have inner theists whether we believe or not -- they thus sneak out in some manner. How have you seen the surveillance blade of Buddhism display itself in the various Buddhisms?

  3. @Sabio - you're everywhere!

    I haven't read that book. I find it more fun to make up my own ideas about some things, rather than just read books about other people's ideas. However it's almost inevitable that someone else beat me to it.

    The UK allegedly has the highest number of CCTV cameras per population of any country in the world!

    In Buddhism, as in some other Indian religions, surveillance is primarily carried out by karma, though clearly there are social controls as well in all societies. The lack of conceptualisation of how this function works proved problematic for later Buddhists who had to invent mechanisms - the best known being the "seeds" deposited in the ālaya-vijñāna model of the Yogacārā school.

  4. I was going to make the same point as Sabio about the control bars: This is interesting and suggestive, but the data here is also entirely consistent with "no effect at all". Doesn't mean we can't speculate about it, but it's an important caveat.

  5. Regarding the error bars, on that graph they're actually the 95% confidence interval [95%CI], rather than what is more often shown (which is the standard error of the mean [SEM]). The 95% CI is about twice as large as the SEM, so they can overlap a bit and the difference can still be significant.

    In the paper, they report that awareness was significantly higher for believers following the god and people prime, and significantly lower for non-believers following the god prime. They didn't test for differences between the believers and non-believers.

    The lower error bar for the control group is missing in the original - well, I guess it's there but drawn in black on black. The colours are all my own work!

  6. @ Jayarava
    Thank you.
    The "superempirical policing" notion is speculated on by many authors. In your wide readings, I'd imagine you have seen it before, just as you have seen the 150? human troop size notion used to support memory development to protect from cheaters in a species which developed cooperation as a adaptive advantage.

    I am not sure if you were being sarcastic and playful when you said, " I find it more fun to make up my own ideas about some things, rather than just read books about other people's ideas." Because I have read you blog before how important it is to acknowledge where we get ideas. And I know you have read extremely broadly.

    See Blume's 2011 article here for more fun reading about the all watching eye.

    Meanwhile, I just read others until perhaps a unique thought may accidentally pop into my head. I am happy with left-overs in the meantime.

  7. to paraphrase Satie "... if God saw that he'd be furious. It's something you must never do, unless you're told to."

  8. Why aren't gods themselves good? Why aren't all these imaginary old egomaniacs hiding in the clouds better behaved? Why do religious followers say that their imaginary gods told them to kill the followers of other imaginary gods?

  9. @Sabio I read far less widely than you seem to imagine. Though I have read Dunbar's original paper on neocortex size correlated to group size (which is where the 150 number comes from). Thanks for the phrase and the link - more grist to the mill.

  10. @Jim asks "Why aren't gods themselves good?" etc

    The evolutionary approach to gods suggests that they began life as personifications of natural forces. When you combined Theory of Mind with a tendency towards mind/body dualism, and a tendency to see things that happen as having agents, then you start to see natural processes as having independent conscious agents.

    Those agents behind nature are capricious and uninvolved in our lives. Sometimes bountiful, and sometimes lethal. Gods were never good to start with - just powerful.

    But living in a world with no control over powerful and capricious nature is a source of anxiety, so people began to develop ways of controlling the gods through rituals (such as the sacrificial offering) or their narratives changed to make their god or one of their gods benevolent. Maybe it was simply a case of good things and bad things being caused by different spirits.

    When you add in the denial of death and development of an afterlife, you're all set for full blown religion.

    We believe in an ordered universe because the alternative is to believe that we are helpless victims of random chance. The idea that the universe is ordered is one of the underlying attractions of science (quite consciously in my case!). If there is order then we can tap into it. But on a micro level there is no way to predict everything - we live in complex systems. One can often describe climate more easily than weather.

    As for killing - it is universally abhorred by people in their right minds. So the over-whelming urge to kill, the burning rage, gets displaced. It wasn't me, it was dolly... I mean God. Killers must also suspend their natural empathy for the other person (i.e. become psychopathic) and treat them as less than human. It makes it hard to take responsibility for the action, so god takes the rap. It's still murder though. And once you start suspending empathy on a regular basis I imagine that it becomes harder to empathise at all. Which may be why the primary targets of Islamists these days seems to be their own people; or why the dissident IRA are still attacking other Irish people. One plays at being a psychopath at the peril of one's sanity and humanity.


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