The act of looking at something changes it – an effect that holds true for people, animals, even atoms. Here’s how the observer effect distorts our world and how we can get a more accurate picture.
We often forget to factor in the distortion of observation when we evaluate someone’s behavior. We see what they are doing as representative of their whole life. But the truth is, we all change how we act when we expect to be seen. Are you ever on your best behavior when you’re alone in your house? To get better at understanding other people, we need to consider the observer effect: observing things changes them, and some phenomena only exist when observed.
The observer effect is not universal. The moon continues to orbit whether we have a telescope pointed at it or not. But both things and people can change under observation. So, before you judge someone’s behavior, it’s worth asking if they are changing because you are looking at them, or if their behavior is natural. People are invariably affected by observation. Being watched makes us act differently.
“I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers.”
— Isaac Asimov
The observer effect in science
The observer effect pops up in many scientific fields.
In physics, Erwin Schrödinger’s famous cat highlights the power of observation. In his best-known thought experiment, Schrödinger asked us to imagine a cat placed in a box with a radioactive atom that might or might not kill it in an hour. Until the box opens, the cat exists in a state of superposition (when half of two states each occur at the same time)—that is, the cat is both alive and dead. Only by observing it does the cat shift permanently to one of the two states. The observation removes the cat from a state of superposition and commits it to just one.
(Although Schrodinger meant this as a counter-argument to Einstein’s proposition of superposition of quantum states – he wanted to demonstrate the absurdity of the proposition – it has caught on in popular culture as a thought experiment of the observer effect.)
In biology, when researchers want to observe animals in their natural habitat, it is paramount that they find a way to do so without disturbing those animals. Otherwise, the behavior they see is unlikely to be natural, because most animals (including humans) change their behavior when they are being observed. For instance, Dr. Cristian Damsa and his colleagues concluded in their paper “Heisenberg in the ER” that being observed makes psychiatric patients a third less likely to require sedation. Doctors and nurses wash their hands more when they know their hygiene is being tracked. And other studies have shown that zoo animals only exhibit certain behaviors in the presence of visitors, such as being hypervigilant of their presence and repeatedly looking at them.
In general, we change our behavior when we expect to be seen. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham knew this when he designed the panopticon prison in the eighteenth century, building upon an idea by his brother Samuel. The prison was constructed so that its cells circled a central watchtower so inmates could never tell if they were being watched or not. Bentham expected this would lead to better behavior, without the need for many staff. It never caught on as an actual design for prisons, but the modern prevalence of CCTV is often compared to the Panopticon. We never know when we’re being watched, so we act as if it’s all the time.
The observer effect, however, is twofold. Observing changes what occurs, but observing also changes our perceptions of what occurs. Let’s take a look at that next.
“How much does one imagine, how much observe? One can no more separate those functions than divide light from air, or wetness from water.”
— Elspeth Huxley
The effects of observation get more complex when we consider how each of us filters what we see through our own biases, assumptions, preconceptions, and other distortions. There’s a reason, after all, why double-blinding (ensuring both tester and subject does not receive any information that may influence their behavior) is the gold-standard in research involving living things. Observer bias occurs when we alter what we see, either by only noticing what we expect or by behaving in ways that have influence on what occurs. Without intending to do so, researchers may encourage certain results, leading to changes in ultimate outcomes.
A researcher falling prey to the observer bias is more likely to make erroneous interpretations, leading to inaccurate results. For instance, in a trial for an anti-anxiety drug where researchers know which subjects receive a placebo and which receive actual drugs, they may report that the latter group seems calmer because that’s what they expect.
The truth is, we often see what we expect to see. Our biases lead us to factor in irrelevant information when evaluating the actions of others. We also bring our past into the present and let that color our perceptions as well—so, for example, if someone has really hurt you before, you are less likely to see anything good in what they do.
The actor-observer bias
Another factor in the observer effect, and one we all fall victim to, is our tendency to attribute the behavior of others to innate personality traits. Yet we tend to attribute our own behavior to external circumstances. This is known as the actor-observer bias.
For example, a student who gets a poor grade on a test claims they were tired that day or the wording on the test was unclear. Conversely, when that same student observes a peer who performed badly on a test on which they performed well, the student judges their peer as incompetent or ill-prepared. If someone is late to a meeting with a friend, they rush in apologizing for the bad traffic. But if the friend is late, they label them as inconsiderate. When we see a friend having an awesome time in a social media post, we assume their life is fun all of the time. When we post about ourselves having an awesome time, we see it as an anomaly in an otherwise non-awesome life.
We have different levels of knowledge about ourselves and others. Because observation focuses on what is displayed, not what preceded or motivated it, we see the full context for our own behavior but only the final outcome for other people. We need to take the time to learn the context of other’s lives before we pass judgment on their actions.
We can use the observer effect to our benefit. If we want to change a behavior, finding some way to ensure someone else observes it can be effective. For instance, going to the gym with a friend means they know if we don’t go, making it more likely that we stick with it. Tweeting about our progress on a project can help keep us accountable. Even installing software on our laptop that tracks how often we check social media can reduce our usage.
But if we want to get an accurate view of reality, it is important we consider how observing it may distort the results. The value of knowing about the observer effect in everyday life is that it can help us factor in the difference that observation makes. If we want to gain an accurate picture of the world, it pays to consider how we take that picture. For instance, you cannot assume that an employee’s behavior in a meeting translates to their work, or that the way your kids act at home is the same as in the playground. We all act differently when we know we are being watched.