Washington: People are more likely to condemn the bad behaviour of others when they sense someone else may be watching, according to a new study.

An international team has confirmed the prediction that participants, who believed they were being watched, though possibly not conscious of that thought, would express greater disapproval of moral transgressions, than those did not.

The increased expression of disapproval is attributed to people's sensitivity to perceptions of their own reputation, says the team.

The research was led by Pierrick Bourrat from the University of Sydney together with colleagues Nicolas Baumard from the University of Pennsylvania and Ryan McKay from the University of London.

To test their hypothesis, researchers presented participants with two stories of moral transgressions, keeping money found in a lost wallet and faking a resume. Half were given the stories on a piece of paper which had a picture of a pair of eyes while it was an image of flowers for others.

Those given stories accompanied by eyes rated the actions as less morally acceptable than those given stories showing flowers, the 'Evolutionary Psychology' journal reported in its latest edition.

"We concluded that the surveillance cues - that is the image of eyes - may have triggered people's internalised moral norms or what has been termed private self-awareness.

"Alternatively, or additionally, as the two explanations are not mutually exclusive, it may be explained by saying it activated the mental mechanisms involved when we believe our behaviour is being observed.    

"In this case it is our 'public self-awareness' that is involved - our awareness of the impression we are making on others and our actions to adjust it according to our understanding of accepted moral standards," Bourrat said.

According to the researchers, the people who demonstrate explicit support for shared standards of behaviour may be acting to maintain their reputations. Moreover, failure to express support for prevailing moral norms may arouse suspicion in others.

The relevance of these findings is broad including shedding light on both politics and religion.

"We are all familiar with the politician who is known to have expressed one view privately or to their party colleagues on a moral issue but a different or more stridently condemnatory viewpoint when it is expressed publicly," Bourrat said.

(Agencies)