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The eyes of [not just] Texas are upon you…

Wednesday, August 10, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

As trial consultants based in Austin, Texas (one a graduate of UT Austin and the other a long-time staff member there) we often hear the UT athletic song ‘The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You.  The melody is easy and friendly (everyone else knows it as “I’ve been working on a railroad”). The lyrics are very creepy.

The writers must have been prescient or something as we again have research to show that we all react when anyone’s eyes are upon us. We seek to protect our image in the eyes of others (even a poster or photo of eyes or the reflection of our own eyes) by behaving more morally than we apparently would otherwise.

We’ve written about this phenomena before here and here. But it continues to hold true. When you want people to behave ‘morally’ or in a socially desirable fashion, it helps to have them feel ‘the eyes of anyone’ upon them.

In a neatly sneaky fashion, researchers had participants read two simple stories of moral transgressions. In one scenario, the protagonist had kept the money found in a lost wallet and in the second scenario, the protagonist falsified their resume. For some participants, the scenario was illustrated with an image of pretty flowers. For others, the image accompanying the scenario was (drum roll) a pair of eyes. (You can see the entire article here including the flower and eyes images used.)

What the researchers found (if you have not already guessed) is that those participants with the ‘eyes’ on their scenarios, judged the moral transgression (whether it was keeping lost money or falsifying a resume) as more serious than did those with the ‘flowers’ on their scenarios.

Tom Rees over at Epiphenom Blog looks at this study and wonders if the reason the religious are more punitive is due to a sense of being watched. We certainly do not know, but we do believe this effect is both real and powerful. People want to be seen as moral and ethical, whether we are or not. The issue for litigation advocacy is whether you want to cue this reaction or not.

If your client has done questionable, ‘gray area’ things, you may not want to cue jurors to don a more moral and punitive perspective.

If, on the other hand, you are opposing counsel, and you want to subtly focus juror attention on those slightly bad acts, incorporating eyes into graphic evidence might be wise.

Or you can simply invoke WWMD (what would Mother think) or “think about telling this story to your Sunday School class” (thereby invoking both religion and wanting to appear at your moral best) to cue jurors accordingly.

More broadly, it seems that if you want the socially conventional judgment, use the ‘eyes’ strategy.  They will feel the moral judgment of society.  If you want them to use their own internal moral compass, and act from inner conviction rather than external pressure, have them close their eyes and imagine the judgment as made by the best qualities that they possess.

It’s really a variation of what we recommend our clients do when race plays a factor in the case narrative. There are times to talk and times to stay quiet. It all depends on your fact pattern.

We leave you with the lyrics to “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You”.

“The eyes of Texas are upon you,

All the live long day.

The eyes of Texas are upon you,

You cannot get away.

Do not think you can escape them,

At night, or early in the morn’.

The eyes of Texas are upon you,

Till Gabriel blows his horn!”


Bourrat, P., Baumard, N., & McKay, R. (2011). Surveillance cues enhance moral condemnation. Evolutionary Psychology, 9 (2), 193-199


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