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Signs With “Watching Eyes” May Reduce Illegal Dumping, Say Rice Researchers

The team of undergraduates chose to include eyes on the signs because of the well-documented “watching eye” effect.


The signs with “watching eyes” placed at a frequent illegal dump site

A research team at Rice University looked at Houston’s trash dumping problem and found that signs with stylized drawings of eyes reduced illegal dumping.

The team of undergraduates said they chose to include eyes on the signs because of the well-documented “watching eye” effect.

“When we were looking at the literature, we found that similar signs that had eyes watching people typically produced positive effects in changing people's behavior,” team member Noah Mengisteab said.

The team chose 16 sites in high-trash areas in the Third Ward, Northline and the Near Northside. They randomly assigned nine lots to receive signs. At the other seven, the researchers simply monitored trash levels.

The team returned to the sites a month later, and found lots of new trash at three of the seven sites without signs. Where there was signage, only one lot was in much worse shape than before.

“For the most part, areas where we set up the signs typically had a decrease in the amount of illegal dumping,” Mengisteab said.

The researchers said signs provide a low-cost way to fight dumping.

“Obviously, signs are cheap,” researcher Nick Silber said. “That’s kind of the main reason we decided to use signs.”

Silber said that other enforcement mechanisms — drones, cameras and the like — are much more expensive. Background research for their study found that these methods only catch around one percent of violators.

By contrast, team member Anson Fung said their signs function as a proactive deterrent.

“Signs are unique in that it stops behavior that you don't want to happen prior to it actually happening,” Fung said.

Mengisteab cautioned that their team’s results are not conclusive — the team only studied sixteen sites in a few geographic areas, and they could only study them for one month. The team would like to see more research in the area — and they’d also like to see local governments implement the idea.

“This could be a real solution that the city could implement in the future,” Silber said.