close menu

Will Police Body Cameras Work? The Psychology of Being Watched

The White House wants to help distribute body cameras to police officers across the country, the family of Michael Brown – the teenager killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri — has championed the technology, and a few studies are now looking at how use-of-force changes when police actually wear them. The evidence that we have for the efficacy of body cameras is slim, but there is a precedent for possible success burned deep into our brains.

We intuitively know that being watched changes our behavior, almost painfully so. “The Spotlight Effect” – coined by psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky in a 1999 paper – is the tendency for us to think that people notice our actions more than they do. Walk into a crowded room, slightly trip over yourself, and you’ll immediately feel the burn of a spotlight that isn’t really there. Everyone else also believes they shine in the spotlight, making accurate evaluations of attention almost impossible.

The evolutionary “just-so” story for why this spotlight burns so much is that as highly social animals, it’s important to be aware of how others perceive our actions, and to exploit that information. By being socially accountable, our species evolved to follow group norms when under group observation. At least that’s the idea, as testing these stories is difficult. But since we’ve started researching the effect of observation on our actions, the story seems to contain at least a grain of evolutionary truth.

Imagine someone watching you put money into a tip jar at the local café. Would you tip more? What if there was just a pair of eyes printed on a sheet of paper? Researchers have actually tested this, finding in a 2006 paper published in Biology Letters that people tipped almost three times as much when a picture of eyes was above a tip jar than when it was just a picture of flowers (the “control”).

120414_PoliceCam_Study A selection of images placed over tip jars in the 2006 study.

The same team of UK researchers put eyes with a stern anti-theft message written beneath them above locations in the University of Newcastle where bicycle thefts were especially high. The signs reduced bike thefts in those areas by 62% (though they increased in areas without the signs). Later, the researchers found that the same signs made students less likely to litter in areas with the signs, even if the researchers pre-littered the ground and attached the signs to bicycle handles.

And it doesn’t have to be someone else watching you that influences your behavior. In a 1998 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers found that if students were placed in a room with a mirror, they ate less of a fat-filled cream cheese spread than students without a mirror reflecting their actions.

Given data like this, it makes logical sense to think that putting a camera on a police officer – making him or her feel observed (at least their actions) – would also steer behavior towards what is socially acceptable. The evidence then should bear that out. Does it?

120414_PoliceCam_BodyCam At up to $1000 and recording gigabytes of data per day, will the infrastructure required to make police body cameras the norm make them cost-prohibitive?

Speaking with The Atlantic, Barak Ariel, a criminologist at the University of Cambridge, isn’t convinced of police body cameras “commonsense” benefits. Even though Ariel co-authored the first randomized-controlled trial on police cameras (a study which found that police officers who weren’t wearing cameras were twice as likely to use force as those who were), he is quick to say that we simply don’t have enough data to support widespread use.

And according to a review of the five studies of the technology by criminologist Michael White for the Department of Justice, “There is not enough evidence to offer a definitive recommendation regarding the adoption of body-worn cameras by police.”

In short: too soon and too few. The technology hasn’t been in wide circulation long enough for data to pile up, and few studies have been conducted on the data we do have (and many of those experiments are inconclusive). And there are always other factors to consider. Some experiments are taking place in other countries – does the use of force by police in the UK really compare to the US? If there are benefits, is it because of changing police behavior, or changing the public’s willingness to appear on camera and report grievances? Even if we do get footage of police misconduct, will it make a difference? Recent events may suggest otherwise.

We have personal and data-supported experience that being watched changes our behavior. Security cameras in parking lots reduce crime and theft, trick-or-treaters who are left to take one piece of candy from a bowl with a mirror above are more likely to behave. But we can’t yet say that putting a camera on every police officer is the next logical step in fixing a growing problem, even one spotlighted by significant public outcry. Though Lady Justice may be blind, we need more data before we can say we want police to think everyone is watching.

Kyle Hill is the Science Editor of Nerdist Industries. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

IMAGES: Star Tribune; Melissa Bateson, Daniel Nettle and Gilbert Roberts

SCREAM 2's Script Leaks Actually Saved the Movie

SCREAM 2's Script Leaks Actually Saved the Movie

We Spoke with NATHAN FOR YOU Ghostwriter Austin Bowers

We Spoke with NATHAN FOR YOU Ghostwriter Austin Bowers

How DAREDEVIL's Best Punisher Scene Did the Comics Proud

How DAREDEVIL's Best Punisher Scene Did the Comics Proud



  1. Phyllis says:

    If we have to rely on cameras, does this mean no one’s word is good anymore unless it is digitized??  I agree, too much, too soon.  It might also mean less $$ for actual real live police officers which will impact crime a lot more than cameras.  Also how might it be abused?  This seems too much like Big Brother.

  2. Beth says:

    I think the main benefit would be corroboration of either side of the story, no matter who was in the right or wrong. And as the police become used to them, forget they are there and running, become less concious of them, there are bound to be some interesting sociological things to find out about day to day police work. As far as the outcomes of the recent grand juries, with the growing publicity of cases like this, especially the strangulation case, I hope public outcry will cause changes in the law about how those cases are handled, such as not using local prosecutors who are vested in the relationship with a given police department and end up soft balling (intentional or not).

    • Tigerh8r says:

      What “strangulation” case?  Video clearly shows that he was not choked, autopsy indicates that there was no choking or injury, died from pre-existing medical issues.  Cameras won’t fix the problem of mass confirmation bias in this country where people ignore the facts in favor of sensationalism.

  3. JM says:

    It’s worth mentioning that the cameras may not only change the officer’s actions because they know they’re being watched, but suspected offenders may also change their behavior for the same reason.

    As the article states, too little info.

  4. Liz says:

    I’d say there’s not enough evidence to support not using them. And I’m not talking about their efficacy at curbing police violence. I mean that ALL the evidence in a lot of cases is witness testimony, which is utterly worthless, no matter who it’s coming from.