The Hawthorne effect is a term referring to the tendency of some people to work harder and perform better when they are participants in an experiment. Individuals may change their behavior due to the attention they are receiving from researchers rather than because of any manipulation of independent variables.
How Was the Hawthorne Effect Discovered?
The effect was first described in the 1950s by researcher Henry A.
Landsberger during his analysis of experiments conducted during the 1920s and 1930s. The phenomenon is named after the location where the experiments took place, Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works electric company just outside of Hawthorne, Illinois.
The electric company had commissioned research to determine if there was a relationship between productivity and work environment.
The focus of the original studies was to determine if increasing or decreasing the amount of light that workers received would have an effect on worker productivity. Employee productivity seemed to increase due to the changes but then decreased at after the experiment was over.
Researchers suggested that productivity increased due to attention from the research team and not because of changes in the experimental variables. Landsberger defined the Hawthorne effect as a short-term improvement in performance caused by observing workers.
More Recent Research on the Hawthorne Effect
Later research into the Hawthorne effect has suggested that the original results may have been overstated. In 2009, researchers at the University of Chicago reanalyzed the original data and found that other factors also played a role in productivity and that the effect originally described was weak at best.
Some additional studies have failed to find strong evidence of the Hawthorne effect and in many cases, other factors may also influence improvements in productivity. In situations involving worker productivity, increased attention from experimenters also results in increased performance on feedback. This increased feedback might actually lead to an improvement in productivity.
The novelty of having experimenters observing behavior might also play a role. This might lead to an initial increase in performance and productivity that may eventually level off as the experiment continues.
Demand characteristics might also play a role in explaining this phenomenon. In experiments, researchers sometimes display subtle clues that let participants know what they are hoping to find. As a result, subjects will sometimes alter their behavior to help confirm the experimenter’s hypothesis.
- “The original data have since been re-analysed, and it is not so clear whether the original results hold up. Nevertheless, the concept has been established – the very fact that people are under study, observation or investigation can have an effect on them and the results.”
- “One way to deal with the Hawthorne effect (and demand characteristics) is to observe the participants unobtrusively. This can be done using the naturalistic observation technique. However, this is not always possible for all behaviors. Another way to deal with the Hawthorne effect is to make the participants’ responses in a study anonymous (or confidential). This may eliminate some of the effects of this source bias.”