Questioning the Hawthorne effect

The Hawthorne effect is the idea that people perform better when they’re being studied. The name comes from studies conducted at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works facility. Increased lighting improved productivity in the plant. Later, lowering the lighting also increased productivity. The Hawthorne effect says that the productivity increase wasn’t due to changes in lighting per se but either the variety of changing something about the plant or the attention that workers got by being measured, a sort of placebo effect.

The Alternative Blog has a post this morning entitled Hawthorne effect debunked. The original Hawthorne effect was apparently due to a flaw in the study design; correcting for that flaw eliminates the effect.

The term “debunked” in the post title may imply too much. The effect in the original studies may have been debunked, but that does not necessarily mean there is no Hawthorne effect. Perhaps there are good examples of the Hawthorne effect elsewhere. On the other hand, I expect closer examination of the data could debunk other reported instances of the Hawthorne effect as well.

The Hawthorne effect makes sense. It has been ingrained in pop culture. I heard a reference to it on a podcast just this morning before reading the blog post mentioned above. Everyone knows it’s true. And maybe it is. But at a minimum, there is at least one example suggesting the effect is not as wide-spread as previously thought.

It would be interesting to track the popularity of the Hawthorne effect in scholarly literature and in pop culture. If the effect becomes less credible in scholarly circles, will it also become less credible in pop culture? And if so, how quickly will pop culture respond?

8 thoughts on “Questioning the Hawthorne effect

  1. I always considered the key feature of the Hawthorn effect to be the totally counterintuitive (and now shown to be erroneous) conclusion that productivity increased when the lighting levels were lowered. That’s what Levitt and List seem to have debunked. In the Indian schools study mentioned in the previous comment, I was expecting to read that the measures of success improved after teachers’ salaries were lowered, similar to the way those measures improved in other schools after teachers’ salaries were increased. But that’s not what was shown, so I don’t think the study validates the Hawthorn effect.

  2. I wonder if the Hawthorn effect kicks in if your company has announced layoffs or a reduction in force?

  3. Hmm, I guess I was interpreting the definition differently then.

    In the case of the educational study the observational effect had arguably a greater affect than the money; it’s just the money didn’t have a negative impact.

  4. Stanley J. Guinn, Ph.D.

    As a retired professor of sociology with 35 years experience dealing with human behavior, I find that there is much misunderstanding about the Hawthorne Effect, even among professionals. Few, if any, living people have read the original notes of the Hawthorne studies, and simply rely on other people’s interpretations of the event.

    Some individuals say that the Hawthorne Effect is that “if any physical change is made in a working environment, production will increase.” Still others believe that “production increases if workers know that they are being studied.” These assertions are not necessarily correct.

    The realistic conclusion that can be drawn from the Hawthorne study is that “if workers BELIEVE management is genuinely interested in their welfare, they will respond in a positive manner. Increased production is simply only one of a several possible positive responses.”

  5. the hawthorn effect is all about the motivation of the people due to a proper attention that could be given for them.It is obvious that people cannot be motivated simply by what change has been made on them unless they believe that the changes offer them what they really needs.The hawthorn effect explains the degree to which an individual motivated as a result of not increament in salary but the way they are treated.

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