Would the feeling of being watched stop you from dropping litter?

Research suggests our behaviour when we’re being watched is very different to when we’re acting unobserved. Hubbub was intrigued to see if watchful eyes could be used as a way of stopping rural littering, as part of a new social experiment in the Forest of Dean this summer.

The idea built on the findings of The University of Newcastle who, whilst researching an honesty box in a canteen, found that people were three times more likely to put money in the box if there was a pair of eyes watching them.

Eyes have also been used to tackle anti-social behaviour. An installation of 10,000 cartoon eyes in Rotterdam gave tower blocks and bus stops  faces and expressions in order to reduce crime rates. Cycle thieves ‘we are watching you’ signs have been used as a deterrent against bicycle theft in the UK.

If cartoon eyes on buildings can reduce crime rates, could eyes on trees made from recycled old records nudge people to think twice about dropping litter? ‘Nudge’ is a behavioural science term simply meaning a small push in the right direction. It can be as simple as supermarkets having fresh fruit and veg at eye-level to encourage healthy eating, or having glowing footprints on the ground to lead people towards bins at night.

The ‘Communitrees’ campaign was designed to test this behaviour change theory, involving all sections of the community. If you went down to the Forest of Dean in August you may have chanced upon a set of googley eyes looking down from you from the trunk of a tree. ‘Treebeard, ‘Mr T’ and ‘Big Ears’ were all part of the 50 strong ‘Communitrees’ family, designed by school children and brought to life by local artists using reclaimed materials and litter from the Forest floor. These 50 faces were thoughtfully placed at 16 hotspot littering sites; including picnic areas, walking routes and car parks.

Countryside littering is a huge problem and each year 250 tonnes of rubbish is removed from the Forest of Dean alone. In the Forest of Dean emptying litter bins, removing fly-tipping, the daily cleansing of town centres and the collection of roadside litter costs local tax-payers more than £400k every year.

Will the playful eyes of the Communitrees make a difference to this stubborn littering problem? The full impact of the campaign is being assessed and will be widely shared both good and bad in the next few months.

Learn more about the Communitrees campaign by watching the BBC Inside Out programme on tackling littering and fly-tipping. Broadcast on BBC One England on Monday, 19 September at 19:30. BST and nationwide on the iPlayer for 30 days thereafter.