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.

Hawthorne EffectThe Hawthorne Effect is a psychological phenomenon in which individuals modify their behavior or performance when they are aware of being observed. It is named after a series of studies conducted at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s.
OriginThe term was coined by researchers during the Hawthorne studies, initially conducted to study the relationship between lighting conditions and worker productivity but later expanded to explore the impact of various factors on employee behavior.
Awareness of ObservationThe key element of the Hawthorne Effect is that people change their behavior because they know they are being observed. This can manifest as increased effort, improved performance, or changes in attitude and behavior.
Positive EffectsIn some cases, the Hawthorne Effect can lead to improved productivity and morale in workplaces. Employees may feel valued and motivated when they know their contributions are being monitored and recognized.
ChallengesOn the flip side, the Hawthorne Effect can also have drawbacks. It may create temporary changes that fade once the observation ends, making it difficult to sustain improved performance. There can also be bias in self-reporting as people try to appear more favorable.
ApplicationsThe Hawthorne Effect is a concept often considered in fields like management, psychology, and research. It highlights the importance of recognizing how awareness of observation can influence results in experiments, workplace studies, and social settings.
Modern UnderstandingToday, the Hawthorne Effect is understood as a subset of a broader range of observer effects or reactivity phenomena where people modify their behavior when they are aware of being observed, impacting both research and real-world contexts.
Management ImplicationsManagers and leaders can leverage the Hawthorne Effect by providing positive feedback, recognizing employee contributions, and creating a workplace culture that encourages open communication and engagement, leading to improved morale and productivity.

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 workday length.

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 responded 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:

Demand characteristics

Where study participants match their behavior to subtle clues a researcher may exhibit regarding the experiment hypothesis. 

Novelty effects

Sometimes, performance increases because of the novelty associated with being monitored. 

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.


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.

Hawthorne Effect and Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion effect is a psychological phenomenon where higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. The Pygmalion effect was defined by psychologist Robert Rosenthal, who described it as “the phenomenon whereby one person’s expectation for another person’s behavior comes to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Like the Hawthorne Effect, the Pygmalion effect is a psychological phenomenon where the person influenced can lead to a change in performance.

If leveraged adequately within organizations, this can lead to increased performance.

Case Studies

  • Clinical Trials and Medical Research:
    • A group of patients in a clinical trial might show improved health outcomes simply because they know they are under observation and not necessarily because of the treatment they are receiving.
    • Patients might adhere better to medication schedules, maintain healthier habits, or even report symptoms more accurately when they know they’re being watched.
  • Fitness and Physical Training:
    • An individual may push themselves harder during a workout if they are aware that their trainer or a peer is watching them.
    • Similarly, a person might eat healthier or adhere to a stricter diet if they are documenting their food intake or if they’re part of a weight loss program where others monitor their progress.
  • Office Productivity Tools:
    • Employees might work more diligently when they know that management has installed software to monitor computer usage, even if the software is benign or doesn’t actively track productivity.
    • They might avoid personal internet browsing, take fewer breaks, or even work longer hours.
  • Traffic and Driving Behavior:
    • Drivers often reduce their speed or become more cautious when they see a police car, even if they aren’t doing anything wrong. They change their behavior due to the mere presence of potential observation.
    • Similarly, placing a sign indicating that speed is being monitored, even without an actual speed camera, can reduce speeding incidents.
  • Classroom Behavior:
    • Students might behave better in a classroom setting when they know the principal or another authority figure is observing the class, even if that observation is passive.
    • A teacher might employ varied teaching strategies or maintain a more structured classroom environment when being evaluated by superiors.
  • Customer Service:
    • Customer service representatives might be more polite, patient, and helpful when they know their calls are being recorded or monitored for quality assurance.
    • Similarly, in-person service providers (like waitstaff in restaurants) might offer better service when they know a mystery shopper or reviewer is present.
  • Environmental and Sustainability Practices:
    • Individuals or companies might be more environmentally conscious when they know they are being observed or evaluated for sustainability practices.
    • For example, a company might ensure recycling is properly done during an audit but be lax at other times.
  • Home and Personal Behavior:
    • People might clean their homes more thoroughly or maintain better personal habits when they know they have guests coming over.
    • Someone might act more charitably or kindly in public settings when they feel they’re being observed, compared to when they’re alone.
  • Competitions and Reality Shows:
    • Participants in reality TV shows or competitions might act differently, either playing up certain aspects of their personality or hiding others, due to the knowledge of being observed by millions.
    • Similarly, athletes might push themselves harder during a televised match or competition due to the presence of cameras and audience.
  • Digital and Online Behavior:
    • Internet users might adjust their online behavior, such as the language they use or the content they post, if they are aware that their actions are being monitored, even if just by algorithms.
    • They might be more careful about personal information and their digital footprint when they know companies or authorities might be watching.

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.

Key Highlights

  • The Hawthorne Effect is the tendency for individuals to change their behavior when they know they are being observed.
  • It was first described by researcher Henry A. Landsberger in a series of experiments in the 1920s and 30s.
  • Landsberger conducted studies to explore the relationship between productivity and work environment for an electric company.
  • The experiments involved manipulating factors like lighting, breaks, and work hours to observe their impact on employee productivity.
  • Surprisingly, productivity increased whenever changes were made to the work environment, regardless of whether the changes seemed to improve or reduce working conditions.
  • This led to the discovery of the Hawthorne Effect, where increased attention and awareness of being observed motivated employees to improve their performance.
  • Subsequent research has suggested that the original results may have been somewhat overstated, but the Hawthorne Effect is still recognized as a real phenomenon.
  • Factors that may contribute to the Hawthorne Effect include demand characteristics, novelty effects, and increased feedback and attention from researchers.
  • In the business context, employees who know they are being observed may feel more accountable and work harder to meet expectations.
  • However, if employees perceive observation as micromanagement, it may lead to decreased morale and productivity.
  • In educational settings, the Hawthorne Effect has a positive impact on teacher performance, as they become more conscious of their teaching methods when being observed.
  • In start-up companies, the Hawthorne Effect can be used to encourage collaboration and innovative ideas by valuing employee opinions and fostering a culture of open communication.
  • The Hawthorne Effect is related to the Pygmalion Effect, where higher expectations for individuals lead to increased performance.
  • Understanding and leveraging these effects can offer valuable insights into human behavior and help create more productive and supportive environments.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 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.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Lindy Effect

The Lindy Effect is a theory about the ageing of non-perishable things, like technology or ideas. Popularized by author Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the Lindy Effect states that non-perishable things like technology age – linearly – in reverse. Therefore, the older an idea or a technology, the same will be its life expectancy.


Antifragility was first coined as a term by author, and options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragility is a characteristic of systems that thrive as a result of stressors, volatility, and randomness. Therefore, Antifragile is the opposite of fragile. Where a fragile thing breaks up to volatility; a robust thing resists volatility. An antifragile thing gets stronger from volatility (provided the level of stressors and randomness doesn’t pass a certain threshold).

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Maslow’s Hammer

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).

Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.

Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.


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.

Recognition Heuristic

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.

Representativeness Heuristic

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.

Take-The-Best Heuristic

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.

Bundling Bias

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.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart’s Law is named after British monetary policy theorist and economist Charles Goodhart. Speaking at a conference in Sydney in 1975, Goodhart said that “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” Goodhart’s Law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Moore’s Law

Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years. This observation was made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 and it become a guiding principle for the semiconductor industry and has had far-reaching implications for technology as a whole.

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation as a term was first described by Clayton M. Christensen, an American academic and business consultant whom The Economist called “the most influential management thinker of his time.” Disruptive innovation describes the process by which a product or service takes hold at the bottom of a market and eventually displaces established competitors, products, firms, or alliances.

Value Migration

Value migration was first described by author Adrian Slywotzky in his 1996 book Value Migration – How to Think Several Moves Ahead of the Competition. Value migration is the transferal of value-creating forces from outdated business models to something better able to satisfy consumer demands.

Bye-Now Effect

The bye-now effect describes the tendency for consumers to think of the word “buy” when they read the word “bye”. In a study that tracked diners at a name-your-own-price restaurant, each diner was asked to read one of two phrases before ordering their meal. The first phrase, “so long”, resulted in diners paying an average of $32 per meal. But when diners recited the phrase “bye bye” before ordering, the average price per meal rose to $45.


Groupthink occurs when well-intentioned individuals make non-optimal or irrational decisions based on a belief that dissent is impossible or on a motivation to conform. Groupthink occurs when members of a group reach a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the alternatives and their consequences.


A stereotype is a fixed and over-generalized belief about a particular group or class of people. These beliefs are based on the false assumption that certain characteristics are common to every individual residing in that group. Many stereotypes have a long and sometimes controversial history and are a direct consequence of various political, social, or economic events. Stereotyping is the process of making assumptions about a person or group of people based on various attributes, including gender, race, religion, or physical traits.

Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Murphy’s Law was named after aerospace engineer Edward A. Murphy. During his time working at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949, Murphy cursed a technician who had improperly wired an electrical component and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

Law of Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences was first mentioned by British philosopher John Locke when writing to parliament about the unintended effects of interest rate rises. However, it was popularized in 1936 by American sociologist Robert K. Merton who looked at unexpected, unanticipated, and unintended consequences and their impact on society.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental attribution error is a bias people display when judging the behavior of others. The tendency is to over-emphasize personal characteristics and under-emphasize environmental and situational factors.

Outcome Bias

Outcome bias describes a tendency to evaluate a decision based on its outcome and not on the process by which the decision was reached. In other words, the quality of a decision is only determined once the outcome is known. Outcome bias occurs when a decision is based on the outcome of previous events without regard for how those events developed.

Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias is the tendency for people to perceive past events as more predictable than they actually were. The result of a presidential election, for example, seems more obvious when the winner is announced. The same can also be said for the avid sports fan who predicted the correct outcome of a match regardless of whether their team won or lost. Hindsight bias, therefore, is the tendency for an individual to convince themselves that they accurately predicted an event before it happened.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon Effect.

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