Hawthorne Effect: What It Is, Phases and Examples

The Hawthorne effect is named after the same factory as the Western Electric Company of Hawthorne, Illinois (United States). At the beginning of the last century, the psychologist and sociologist Elton Mayo carried out a series of studies on the influence of the environment on productivity. During the study, the researchers realized that the workers reacted to a stimulus contrary to expectations: in particular, production increased even with the decrease in lighting level. The conclusions, therefore, led to the recognition of the fact that being the object of observation triggered an accountability mechanism in the workers that nullified the effect of the stimulus. With this article from Psychology-Online we will discover together what the Hawthorne effect is, its phases and some examples about.

What is the Hawthorne effect?

Until today, the Hawthorne effect is understood to be the effect - produced in a totally involuntary way - induced on subjects conscious of being observed, but this phenomenon has been at the center of a bitter scientific debate for many years. In other words, we can define it as an improvement in worker productivity due to a change in working conditions caused by their response to an innovation or the feeling of being the object of attention . It was Henry A. Landsberger, in a critique of the experiments, who gave what he considered a loophole in Mayo's search the term "Hawthorne effect."

Hawthorne's experiment

Although the term was coined in the middle of the last century, the origins of the phenomenon date back to the 20s and 30s of the 20th century. In those years, the American Western Electric carried out a series of studies on the productivity of workers at its plant in Hawthorne. In one set of experiments, the power of the light bulbs was varied to see how the light affected the productivity of women who assembled electrical components; In others, on the contrary, the rest periods were increased or decreased, the arrangement of the rooms was changed and the working days were shortened.

The first influential reports from these experiments concluded that productivity continued to grow regardless of whether the lights were softer or brighter or whether work days were longer or shorter, or whether working conditions improved or worsened. The researchers concluded that the productivity improvements were not a consequence of changes in the workplace, but were due to their special role in the experiment leading workers to believe that they were noticed and evaluated , so they worked more and more.

Over the years, the idea that being part of an experiment influences the attitude of the subject has become known as the Hawthorne effect, and precisely these experiments have given rise to industrial psychology, which in turn has evolved into various specializations, such as occupational psychology, health psychology, and positive psychology .

Phases of the Hawthorne effect

The Hawthorne effect experiments occurred in several stages:

  • Two groups were selected: a control group and the other on which to carry out the experiment by inserting it in a more illuminated environment. The results were so unusual that Mayo and his parents repeated the experiment several times, varying the lighting significantly. Unexpectedly, productivity had increased in both groups : this incomprehensible, but somewhat interesting result, led to interruption of the experiments for some reflection.
  • A couple of years after May, together with a group of psychologists, he restructured the experiment with the participation of six workers from a relay editing department. The observation lasted five years, a period in which a series of parameters were modified, not only in the work environment, but also in wages, vacations and hours. Productivity increased, but Mayo and his group did not believe that there could be a close quantitative correlation with the variations they made. So they did a counter test, which brought the situation as it was at the beginning: productivity fell, but remained at high levels with respect to the other groups in the company. The conclusion that Mayo and his team reached was that the productivity of the six workers depended on the fact thatthey felt as a group, and a group under analysis.
  • After more experiments and an avalanche of controversies, which are still not completely sedated today, in 1955 Landsberger analyzed the collected data and observed an interesting scheme (today known as the Hawthorne effect), concluding that these could be explained by the observer effect : that is, , that if observed, the behavior changes. He observed that workers exhibited short-term productivity gains in response to being under scrutiny; it didn't seem very important whether the light was high or low. He concluded that the fact that the study was communicated to the workers suggested greater attention from management and produced a greater moral effect than that of environmental changes.

Examples of the Hawthorne effect

How does the Hawthorne effect affect companies? What was called the Hawthorne effect was nothing more than paying attention to the human aspect of work. All he had to do was engage the six workers in the experiment, ask for their collaboration, listen to them, and engage them in the variations to be introduced. He gave them back the importance they had as an experimental group in which the company would change its strategy. The technical aspect was irrelevant, while the key was participation, feeling like a group.

The other aspect revealed by the investigations was that the intrinsic motivation in some cases has more than extrinsic , ie the perks that six workers were made to feel part of the company, to be heard and to take part in decision-making power were superior to financial rewards.

The Hawthorne effect, therefore, suggests that companies can achieve increased productivity by motivating employees and improving their perception of the work environment. A conclusion that gave impetus to the birth of contemporary human resources departments as responsible for the supervision of hiring, training and employee development.

Difference between placebo effect and Hawthorne effect

Probably the most complete definition of placebo is that of Dr. AK Shapiro, who, summarizing the different meanings he proposes, it is possible to define placebo as any deliberately established procedure to obtain an effect or that, even without being aware of it, it acts on the patient or on the symptom or the disease, but objectively lacks any specific activity with respect to the condition treated. This procedure can be applied with or without the knowledge that it is a placebo, which differs from the Hawthorne effect , in which the subjects are always aware that they are being observed .