I recently read a truly fascinating study. It wasn’t a new study, but nonetheless it affected me.
A team from England’s Newcastle University monitored how much money people would put in a canteen “honesty box” when buying a drink. Over the course of 10 weeks, a poster listing hot drink prices was placed at eye-level above the honesty box. Each week, the poster featured an image of either flowers or a pair of eyes looking directly at the person taking the items.
At the end of every week, the team calculated the total amount of money collected and the amount of drink most likely to have been consumed.
Dr. Melissa Bateson, the lead author of the study, said: “We found that people paid 2.76 times as much money when we put a notice on the wall that featured a pair of eyes as opposed to when the image was of some flowers. Although it was just a photocopied black and white poster, we know that people’s brains are set up to process faces and eyes, and that is probably because it is very important for us to know if we are being watched by other people.”
Perhaps reading about this program affected me so much because of my involvement and interest in the ongoing movement to pass a law calling for a mandatory moment of silence in the New York State public school system.
Much as with the eyes experiment, I have learned over time that if children are given a moment to contemplate a greater power or reflect on man’s accountability, their behavior improves because of the knowledge of the “eye that sees.”
A story I often share concerns a friend who taught 4th grade in an inner city public school. He had a difficult time with discipline and decided to try a different tactic. He explained to his class about an “eye that sees” and an “ear that hears” and that all our deeds are recorded. He then would start his class with a moment of silence.
That one moment of introspection made a tremendous difference in the behavior of the class. This teacher in the inner city school system, who took it upon himself to implement a moment of silence in his classroom, found a drastic change not only in the students’ behavior but also in their scholastic achievement. The difference was so powerful that the principal, at first a skeptic, decided to go along with the teacher’s method.
Despite the implementation of a wide variety of violence prevention programs, there has been an upsurge across the country in the number of youthful offenders – the striking exception being almost all those states that have implemented a mandatory moment of silence in schools.
Two good examples are New Jersey and Massachusetts. In 2000, New Jersey mandated a moment of silence in its public school system at the start of each school day. Statistics show that over the next several years New Jersey’s juvenile crime rate decreased by more than 11 percent. Massachusetts, meanwhile, has seen a nearly 15 percent decrease in juvenile crime since ratifying a mandatory moment of silence in its public school system.
Such laws have been upheld as constitutional in many states. U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton, in a 15-page decision in favor of a similar law in Virginia, wrote, in part:
The court finds that the Commonwealth’s daily observance of one minute of silence…is constitutional. The act was enacted for a secular purpose, does not advance or inhibit religion, nor is there excessive entanglement with religion .… Students may think as they wish – and this thinking can be purely religious in nature or purely secular in nature. All that is required is that they sit silently.
The eye-poster experiment brings home a striking message. When people feel that there is an “eye that sees,” their behavior improves. Studies show that if children are given a moment to contemplate the “eye that sees,” that alone can help them focus on responsible behavior and bring down juvenile crime statistics. Children need a moment of silence in school to contemplate accountability – to ponder an “eye that sees” and an “ear that hears.”