Does observability affect prosociality?

Alex Bradley, Claire Lawrence, Eamonn Ferguson

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The observation of behaviour is a key theoretical parameter underlying a number of models of prosociality. However, the empirical findings showing the effect of observability on prosociality are mixed. In this meta-analysis, we explore the boundary conditions that may account for this variability, by exploring key theoretical and methodological moderators of this link. We identified 117 papers yielding 134 study level effects (total n = 788 164) and found a small but statistically significant, positive association between observability and prosociality (r = 0.141, 95% confidence interval = 0.106, 0.175). Moderator analysis showed that observability produced stronger effects on prosociality: (i) in the presence of passive observers (i.e. people whose role was to only observe participants) versus perceptions of being watched, (ii) when participants’ decisions were consequential (versus non-consequential), (iii) when the studies were performed in the laboratory (as opposed to in the field/online), (iv) when the studies used repeated measures (instead of single games), and (v) when the studies involved social dilemmas (instead of bargaining games). These effects show the conditions under which observability effects on prosociality will be maximally observed. We describe the theoretical and practical significance of these results.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20180116
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1875
Publication statusPublished - 28 Mar 2018


  • visibility
  • prosocial
  • cost signalling theory
  • indirect reciprocity
  • competitive altruism
  • RCUK
  • ESRC
  • 1491185


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