The Hawthorne Effect and Behavioral Studies

By Ayesh Perera, published Jan 22, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Summary

  • The term Hawthorne effect was coined by Henry A. Landsberger in 1958 while he was analyzing some studies which had been conducted from 1924 to 1932 in a Western Electric plant called the Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois (Landsberger, 1958).
  • In the project, the company had endeavored to discover whether there existed a relationship between work environments and productivity. The first study observed the performance of several workers manufacturing electrical relays.
  • The environment underwent several alterations in lighting, and the employees’ performance in response to the tiniest changes in illumination was examined.
  • Almost any alteration in lighting seemed to induce an improvement in the workers’ productivity. Nonetheless, as the study ended, these gains vanished. The results observed seemed to indicate that the rise in productivity had been inspired primarily by a motivational impact upon the company’s workers (Cox, 2000).
  • It seemed that increased observation by supervisors, provided that workers were aware of being observed, could raise labor productivity.
  • Landsberger, thus introduced the term ‘Hawthorne effect’ to describe this temporary improvement in productivity in response to one’s awareness of being observed.

Definition

The Hawthorne effect can be described as the propensity of certain individuals to modify their conduct due to their consciousness of being observed (Fox, Brennan & Chasen, 2008).

The Hawthorne effect suggests that the attention the experimenters in a study bestow upon their subjects might inspire the latter to alter their behavior if the latter become aware that they are subjects in an experiment.


Subsequent Research

Meanwhile, between 1927 and 1932, a separate study observed 6 women assembling telephone relays, working in collaboration (Harvard Business School, Historical Collections).

After their output over two weeks had been secretly measured, the women were placed in a special room with a supervisor for the experiment.

For the remainder of the study the women would occupy this room, and the supervisor discussed with them various possible alterations to their job. Breaks varying in regularity and length, alterations to the number of workhours and the provision/non-provision of meals were among the subsequent changes the women underwent.

Modifications to the aforementioned variables (including reversions), for the most part, saw increases in productivity. The researchers noted that these workers’ awareness of being observed and the team spirit which the close-knit atmosphere had generated had caused the rise in productivity (Mayo, 1945).

Another research study by the Harvard anthropologists Elton Mayo and W. Lloyd Warner studied 14 men tasked with assembling telephone switching apparatus (Henslin, 2008). The men, who were to be paid based on individual productivity, shared a room with an observer tasked with recording everything that occurred therein.

Surprisingly, productivity fell. The researchers uncovered that the workers had become suspicious that a rise in productivity would eventually result in a decrease of the base rate or the dismissal of some workers. Further scrutiny unveiled the presence of smaller cliques (inside the main group) with distinct rules for behavior as well as means for the enforcement of such codes.

The influence of peer groups, rather than incentives from supervisors, seemed to shape these workers’ conduct. The result of the study was seen not as challenging prior research discoveries, but as identifying a potentially stronger variable in peer pressure, that could account for the workers’ performance.


Other Explanations

Despite the Hawthorne effect’s apparent influence on performance, alternative explanations cannot be disregarded (Perera, 2021).

Demand Characteristics

An experiment’s subjects might draw conclusions concerning its objectives, and consequently, either consciously or subconsciously modify their conduct (Orne, 2009).

The participants’ intentions might range from endeavoring to undermine the study’s credibility to attempting to advance the experimenter’s apparent agenda.

These factors might play a significant role in any experiment seeking to examine the Hawthorne effect.

Performance Feedback

Frequent evaluations by the research analysts could constitute a scoreboard which improves productivity.

The workers’ acquaintance with their output, rather than their knowledge of being observed, could be the chief driver of the rises in their productivity.

The Novelty Effect

The Novelty Effect is the propensity of human performance to improve in response to novel environmental stimuli (Clark & Sugrue, 1988).

Fascination with novelty, rather than growth or advances in learning, may induce such improvement.

Decreasing the Hawthorne Effect

Advances in any discipline rely upon the credibility of experiments. Thus, testing hypotheses requires the minimization of potential sources of bias.

Hence, researchers can utilize certain strategies to decrease the Hawthorne effect in their studies.

Discarding the Initial Observations (Davis, 2016)

An experiment’s subjects might take time to adapt to their new surroundings. Discomfort (or fascination) with novelty, rather than the experiment’s actual variables, might cause certain changes in performance at this stage. Familiarity overtime with the environment, nonetheless, would reduce the impact of the novel stimuli and unveil the raw impact of the variables of interest.

Utilizing Control Groups (Flack, 2015)

When a control group’s subjects and the subjects receiving the intervention are treated similarly, the Hawthorne effect would equivalently impact both the categories. Such conditions can more readily facilitate the identification and analysis of the intervention’s effects.

Covert Methods (Hina, 2015)

Covert data collection and the concealment of information can mitigate the Hawthorne effect. Administering experiments covertly, and observing the participants without notifying them can yield more dependable outcomes.

Criticism

Notwithstanding its implications, the Hawthorne effect has elicited notable criticism.

John List and Steven Levitt, following an evaluation of the initial experiment’s data, have declared that, despite the Hawthorne effect’s possible manifestations, the purported patterns were fictional (Levitt & List, 2011).

Excess responsiveness to alterations effected by the experimenter, in relation to naturally occurring variations, has been put forth as an alternative means to examine the Hawthorne effect.

Another investigation conducted to ascertain whether the Hawthorne effect truly exists, involved the systematic examination of the available evidence on the phenomenon (McCambridge, Witton & Elbourne, 2014).

Following their analysis, the researchers herein concluded that though partaking in research may influence the behaviors under observation, uncovering more about their mechanisms, magnitude and operation demands further investigation.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Perera, A. (2022, Jan 27). The hawthorne effect and behavioral studies. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/hawthorne-effect.html

APA Style References

Bauernfeind, R. H., & Olson, C. J. (1973). Is the Hawthorne effect in educational experiments a chimera?. The Phi Delta Kappan, 55(4), 271-273.

Clark, R. E., & Sugrue, B. M. (1988). Research on instructional media 1978-88. In D. Ely (Ed.), Educational Media and Technology Yearbook, 1994. Volume 20. Libraries Unlimited, Inc., PO Box 6633, Englewood, CO 80155-6633.

Cox, E. (2001). Psychology for A-level. Oxford University Press.

Davis, L. (2016). Re: How I can overcome the Hawthorne effect during observational studies?. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/post/How-I-can-overcome-the-Hawthorne-effect-during-observational-studies/573f536a404854cc70742e01/citation/download.

Flack, J. (2015). Re: Any suggested strategies to avoid "trial effect" or "Hawthorne Effect"?. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/post/Any-suggested-strategies-to-avoid-trial-effect-or-Hawthorne-Effect/56658ac75cd9e3b3178b4585/citation/download.

Fox, N. S., Brennan, J. S., & Chasen, S. T. (2008). Clinical estimation of fetal weight and the Hawthorne effect. European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, 141(2), 111-114.

Gale, E.A.M. (2004). The Hawthorne studies – a fable for our times? Quarterly Journal of Medicine, (7),439-449.

Henslin, J. M., Possamai, A. M., Possamai-Inesedy, A. L., Marjoribanks, T., & Elder, K. (2015). Sociology: A down to earth approach. Pearson Higher Education AU.

Hina, H. (2015). Re: Any suggested strategies to avoid "trial effect" or "Hawthorne Effect"?. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/post/Any-suggested-strategies-to-avoid-trial-effect-or-Hawthorne-Effect/566013b75cd9e3fb128b45a5/citation/download.

Landsberger, H. A. (1958). Hawthorne Revisited: Management and the Worker, Its Critics, and Developments in Human Relations in Industry.

Levitt, S. D., & List, J. A. (2011). Was there really a Hawthorne effect at the Hawthorne plant? An analysis of the original illumination experiments. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 3(1), 224-38.

Mayo, E. (1945). The human problems of an industrial civilization. New York: The Macmillan Company.

McCambridge, J., Witton, J., & Elbourne, D. R. (2014). Systematic review of the Hawthorne effect: new concepts are needed to study research participation effects. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 67(3), 267-277.

McCarney, R., Warner, J., Iliffe, S., Van Haselen, R., Griffin, M., & Fisher, P. (2007). The Hawthorne Effect: a randomised, controlled trial. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 7(1), 1-8.

Rice, B. (1982). The Hawthorne defect: Persistence of a flawed theory. Psychology Today, 16(2), 70-74.

Orne, M. T. (2009). Demand characteristics and the concept of quasi-controls. Artifacts in behavioral research: Robert Rosenthal and Ralph L. Rosnow’s classic books, 110, 110-137.