What Is The Hawthorne Effect? The Hawthorne Effect In A Nutshell

The Hawthorne Effect refers to an inclination of some people to work harder or perform better when they know they are being observed. The effect is most associated with those who are experiment participants, who alter their behavior due to the attention they are receiving and not due to any manipulation of independent variables. Therefore, the Hawthorne Effect describes the tendency for a person to change their behavior with the awareness that they are being observed.

Understanding the Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect has also been discussed in the context of industrial and organizational psychology. Researcher Henry A. Landsberger, who first described the effect, conducted landmark studies in the 1920s and 30s after being commissioned by an electric company to determine if there was a relationship between productivity and work environment.

During the studies, Landsberger examined aspects such as the timing of breaks, workplace lighting, and the length of the workday. In one particular study into the effect of decreasing light levels on worker productivity, Landsberger found that employees worked harder in response to the changes but then decreased their output once the test concluded. 

It was later found that any change to the workplace caused an increase in productivity. Many of these changes might appear to lower productivity at first glance, such as longer workdays or the elimination of work breaks. The researchers concluded that employees were responding to increased attention from supervisors and not from experimental variables.

Subsequent research into the Hawthorne Effect

Subsequent research into the Hawthorne Effect suggested that Landsberger’s original results were somewhat overstated. In 2009, a University of Chicago study went over the data and discovered that other factors played a role in employee productivity. The study also found that many of Landsberger’s conclusions were simply not supported by the data.

Nevertheless, the study did concede that the Hawthorn Effect was a real – if not weak – phenomenon. Five years later, a systematic review published in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology found the phenomena to exist across 19 different experiments. The review also acknowledged that more research needed to be done to determine the mechanism(s) behind the Hawthorn Effect.

With that said, some factors which may influence productivity include:

  1. Demand characteristics – where study participants match their behavior to subtle clues a researcher may exhibit regarding the experiment hypothesis. 
  2. Novelty effects – sometimes, performance increases because of the novelty associated with being monitored. 
  3. Performance feedback – in the original study, increased attention from researchers was thought to have increased performance feedback. This in turn resulted in productivity improvements.

The Hawthorne Effect in business

Here are some scenarios where the Hawthorne Effect may occur in business:

  • Management technique – observation of employees is a double-edged sword. Employees who know they are being observed may improve their performance because of increased accountability. On the other hand, performance may decline if the employee perceives there to be an ulterior motive for the superior observing them.
  • Education – the Hawthorne effect has been proven to have very little impact on school-age children, but teachers observed by a camera or a person sitting in on their class tended to perform better. 
  • Start-up growth – the Hawthorn Effect can also be used in new companies to encourage innovative ideas and collaboration. Employee observation means opinions are heard and respected, which in turn invokes certain emotions that motivate the employee to strive for a common purpose. Attentive observation can also be used to monitor employees as they collaborate in teams, with more productive team members tending to assume leadership of the group and deliver better outcomes.

Key takeaways:

  • The Hawthorne Effect describes the tendency for a person to change their behavior due to an awareness of being observed. The phenomenon was first described by Henry A. Landsberger in a series of experiments in the 1920s and 30s.
  • Subsequent research into the Hawthorne Effect suggested that Landsberger’s original results were exaggerated. Indeed, the phenomenon may be supplemented by demand characteristics, novelty effects, and performance feedback.
  • The Hawthorne Effect commonly occurs during employee-manager interactions. It may also increase teacher performance in the classroom and enhance ideation, leadership, and collaboration in young companies.

Related Business Concepts

As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.
The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.
The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.
The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.
The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman since 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.
The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.
The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.
Nudge theory argues positive reinforcement and indirect suggestion is an effective way to influence the behavior and decision making of individuals or groups. Nudge theory was an idea first popularized by behavioral economist Richard Thaler and political scientist Cass Sunstein. However, the pair based much of their theory on heuristic research conducted by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1970s.
The bullwhip effect describes the increasing fluctuations in inventory in response to changing consumer demand as one moves up the supply chain. Observing, analyzing, and understanding how the bullwhip effect influences the whole supply chain can unlock important insights into various parts of it.
Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

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