Hawthorne Effect

Updated on March 20, 2024
Article byRutan Bhattacharyya
Edited byRutan Bhattacharyya
Reviewed byDheeraj Vaidya, CFA, FRM

What Is Hawthorne Effect?

Hawthorne Effect refers to the tendency of people who are a part of an experiment to alter their behavior when they become aware that the researchers are watching them. This term suggests that a business’s employees can become more productive if their supervisors are paying attention to them.

Hawthorne Effect

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One can learn various things from studies related to the topic, for example, the importance of ensuring that employees know their supervisors or managers are noticing them. Moreover, the supposed inclination to change behavior can improve employees’ conduct besides productivity at work. This, in turn, positively impacts the organization’s overall working conditions.

Key Takeaways

  • Hawthorne effect definition suggests that individuals change their behavior owing to the attention given by researchers, not due to any manipulation of independent variables.
  • The main advantage of the Hawthorne effect is the increase in employees’ productivity in response to the attention received from their supervisors.
  • A study in 2009 conducted by the University of Chicago suggests that the researchers of the original Hawthorne effect experiments overstated the results.
  • This phenomenon is unavoidable in the case of studies involving human subjects. Therefore, researchers must try to prevent behavioral changes from affecting their study’s results.

Hawthorne Effect Explained

The Hawthorne effect definition refers to individuals’ behavioral change when they realize someone is observing them. This change in employee behavior improves a business’s work culture and labor productivity. This increase in individuals’ productivity resulting from the awareness of being watched is the main advantage of Hawthorne effect.

Sociologist Henry A. Landsberger was the first to come up with the term when he analyzed the industrial experiments performed in the Hawthorne suburb of Chicago, Illinois, in the 1920s and 1930s. An electric company named Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works had commissioned research to determine whether there is a relationship between work environments and productivity. The study’s objective was to examine whether the changes in work structure, for example, working hours, break time, etc., and lighting impacted employees’ productivity.

In the original studies, researchers found that any change to the experimental conditions improved productivity. For instance, productivity improved irrespective of whether the researchers increased or decreased the lighting. Moreover, the observers recorded increased productivity after lengthening the workday and eliminating breaks.

Many researchers declared that this change in productivity was not an impact of the alterations in working conditions. Rather, the fact that people were concerned enough to experiment with the working conditions led to the employees’ improved productivity.

That said, the University of Chicago conducted a study in 2009 which suggested that the researchers had overstated the results of the original Hawthorne effect experiments. Moreover, the study further revealed that there weren’t sufficient research data to support the claims of the original researchers. Nevertheless, the new study did not dismiss the possibility that the original researchers observed the behavioral change in their experiments.

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Examples

Let us look at a few Hawthorne effect examples to understand the concept better.

#1 Hawthorne Effect In Research

In 2015, the infection prevention department of Santa Clara Medical Center, based in San Jose, California, conducted a study. It aimed to measure the deviation in hand hygiene compliance rates when the medical staff recognized the auditors and when they did not. 

After conducting thousands of observations, the researchers found that healthcare workers adhered to hand hygiene guidelines. The difference in the auditors or not. Thus, it suggests that the workers only followed the guidelines when they knew they were under observation. In other words, the medical staff ignored the recommendations during normal working conditions.

#2 Hawthorne Effect In Psychology

Psychologists ask their patients various personal questions. Since patients may become emotional while answering the questions, they may hide their true feelings when they are in the spotlight. As a result, there could be a change in their behavior or answers. That said, this change in behavior or answers might not occur if patients have to write their thoughts down on paper when a psychologist is absent.

#3 Hawthorne Effect In Sociology

Lloyd Warner, an American Anthropologist, conducted a study with Elton Mayo, an Australian social psychologist, in the 1930s to understand the payment incentives on employee productivity. This Hawthorne Effect experiment involved 14 male workers who assembled telephone switching equipment as a part of their daily work routine. These workers received compensation depending on their productivity.

The study findings surprised the researchers. Employee productivity dropped as wage incentives increased. Seemingly, the workers became suspicious of the unforeseen surge in wage incentives. They thought this was a part of a strategy to terminate employees or decrease wages in the future.

After the researchers dug in deeper, they found that the employees had created informal groups that set rules of conduct and formulated strategies to ensure that the workers adhered to such rules.

Employees designed the guidelines in a specific way to ensure that productivity remained more or less stable irrespective of the wage incentive changes. In the end, the researchers found that these workers were more responsive to the informal groups rather than the wage incentives offered by the management.  

Hawthorne Effect And Modern Studies

Researchers often depend on human subjects while conducting a study. When analyzing the results in such cases, they consider the intrinsic bias – the Hawthorne Effect. Assessing how an individual’s awareness of an ongoing study might impact their behavior is challenging. However, researchers must ensure to consider it and make the necessary adjustments.

Although there is no universally accepted technique to achieve this goal, researchers should utilize their experience and knowledge to prevent the phenomenon from impacting their study results.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. How to reduce Hawthorne Effect?

There are two ways to minimize the change in behavior of human subjects in an experiment:
1. Researchers can use naturalistic observation techniques. Nevertheless, it is not always possible.  
2. Observers can make the participants’ responses in a study entirely confidential or anonymous.

2. When was the Hawthorne Effect discovered?

Researchers conducted the original Hawthorne studies in the 1920s and 1930s. Henry A. Landsberger was the first to describe this phenomenon while analyzing the original Hawthorne studies; he coined the term in 1958.

3. Why is the Hawthorne Effect significant?

This phenomenon established that worker productivity significantly increased when they learned that some people were concerned enough to know what they felt. This is an excellent lesson for managers; they should pay attention to their team members and listen to them.

4. How does the Hawthorne Effect affect validity?

This phenomenon impacts validity by either inflating or deflating a variable’s value. Alternatively, it can establish an indefinite relationship between two variables that could mislead researchers.

This article is a guide to What is Hawthorne Effect. Here, we explain its definition and experiments with examples. You can also go through our recommended articles on corporate finance –

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Comments

  1. Kareem yemi Aminat says

    Very Educative . Thanks.

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