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Is Hawthorne Effect Merely a Behavior Alteration?


The Hawthorne effect refers to one of the most common phenomena in workplaces.

What is the Hawthorne effect definition?

Now... before you read the rest of this article, make sure to check This System.

It is the most commonly observed social development or trend in corporate circles.

In fact, this is one of those extremely well-documented phenomena.

It has affected experiments and researches in social sciences in the most pronounced manner.

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What Is the Hawthorne Effect? A Catalyst Which Triggers Behavior Change in People...

In very simple words, you can call it the process where people tend to change their behavior pattern because they are being observed.

You can pretty much keep all other elements static and still get a reaction.

You can do this just by alerting a group of individuals that they are under study.

In fact, you can bring about a perceptible change in their behavior.

You can do this just by the realization that they are being monitored.

Most social science researchers would term it as the most difficult inbuilt bias to factor in.

Therefore, at a very basic stage, you can term Hawthorne effect as that catalyst which triggers behavior change in people.

Just because there is a change, irrespective of whether it is in their favor or against, Hawthorne Effect elicits a reaction.

So, it is a response system that reacts to change more than the change brought about by the change.

In fact, there is an apt example of manifesting this contradiction and duality, the inherent bias of the Hawthorne effect.

The researchers once conducted a study in a factory to study if the change of lighting impacted the productivity of the laborers in a factory?

Productivity did increase, but do you know why?

It was not because of the new lighting system.

But the fact that they were under observation motivated the laborers to work more.

So, in this case, there was a perceptible change in productivity but not because of any external factor.

It was only because that the laborers knew that they were under study.

The Hawthorne Effect Definition

What Is the Hawthorne Effect Definition and What It Means?

Therefore, when you are looking out for the most appropriate Hawthorne effect definition, it would be most relevant to quote Gillespie.

He said,

“ It is the tendency of people being observed, as part of a research effort, to behave differently than they otherwise would.”

In fact, Gillespie has even gone on to call the Hawthorne effect experiments as the most controversial ones in social sciences.

We cannot deny the social impact and the social implication in workplace dynamics in any way.

Studies as early as the 1920s and 1930s indicated that even the human relations approach in management stance was an outcome of the various social aspects under consideration.

Many times, the positive result seen in various kinds of intervention studies have been attributed to the Hawthorne Effect.

There are many empirical pieces of evidence of this social phenomenon across a multitude of examples and experiments in the social sector.

As a direct impact of the Hawthorne Effect, you would notice people working a lot better and relatively harder when they know that someone’s watching them.

The most surprising factor is that the change is noticed irrespective of any change in any of the potential independent variables at play.

Why Was It Named Hawthorne Effect?

When we talk about the Hawthorne effect definition, one of the most obvious questions along with what is the Hawthorne effect, is undeniably why it was named Hawthorne effect?

In fact, it was not the scientist or the proponent of the theory after which this social phenomenon was named.

Surprisingly it was named after the most famous series of experiments that were conducted to validate this theory.

In many ways, it is also one of the most important development or finding in Industrial History.

The identification of the Hawthorne effect completely changed the world of industrial working and productivity studies.

Before the theory of the Hawthorne effect gained currency, Frederick Taylor’s ideas broadly influenced the traditional thinking about the industrial working condition.

These focused on every worker individually and the various ways, this could be improved.

However, suddenly as Hawthorne effect came into being and shifted the focus from individual specifics to social behavior patterns.

The First Hawthorne Effect Experiment

The First Experiment in Late 1920s & Early 1930s in a Chicago Suburb That Is How the Name Hawthorne Effect Came into Being.

So now we set out on the journey that completely changed dynamics and rekindled a completely new social awakening.

It was the most striking development that explained one of the most striking social phenomena.

This experiment first took place in late 1920s & early 1930s in a Chicago suburb, Hawthorne and that is how the name Hawthorne Effect came into being.

It was conducted at the Western Electric’s factory at Hawthorne.

These experiments were conducted mostly under the supervision of an Australian-born sociologist, Elton Mayo.

Mayo, who eventually became an Industrial research professor in Harvard undertook the original experiment.

His intent was to understand the effect of various physical conditions on their overall productivity.

The subjects for this experiment were two groups of workers at Hawthorne’s Western Electric factory.

On one particular day, they have changed the lighting in a specific working dramatically.

For one group, it was improved significantly compared to the lighting condition under which the other group was working.

Researchers were surprised to find a rather dramatic improvement in the overall productivity of this group that was working under better lights.

Several Other Changes

There were several other changes also brought forth in the working condition of the employees like:

  1. The hours of their work
  2. The breaks given to them

Every time a change took place, there was a perceptible improvement in the productivity levels.

The surprising thing was that when the same lights were dimmed again, there was further improvement in their working condition.

In fact, by the time every independent variable was returned back to the old levels, productivity was at its highest.

Not just productivity, even absenteeism also plummeted significantly though working condition did not improve.

So, the team of experts who conducted the experiment concluded that productivity changed because these workers knew their work was under observation.

More than the deterioration or improvement in the working condition, it was the consciousness that changed the level of productivity.

Thus, the Hawthorne Effect or the consciousness about this social phenomenon came into being.

The primary desire to fare better than your fellow colleagues, to stand well in your peer group decidedly outweighed individual concerns of safety and quality.

Come to think of it; so many of modern management policies is a direct fallout of this primary thinking, the whole need to outshine your fellow colleagues.

In fact, the entire group was actually responsible for deciding the personal performance level of every individual.

Therefore, a simple answer to what is Hawthorne effect is that it is a powerful catalyst that can charge up the entire team.

It can motivate a group of individuals to double and even treble their performance without improving the efficiency of the working condition.

How Was the Hawthorne Effect Theory Formulated?

How Was the Hawthorne Effect Theory Formulated?

Though the Hawthorne Effect came into existence in the late 1920s- early 1930s, you can surely understand that it did not become a well-established theory overnight.

Researchers continued their experiments and group studies over a sustained period.

However, it was only in the 1950s they came close to the modern interpretation of the theory as we know it today.

It was first described in a cohesive fashion by Henry A Landsberger in 1950s.

He undertook a study to understand the outcome and the various data points of the experiments that Elton Mayo conducted between 1924-1932.

The company, Western Electric had commissioned the study to analyze the impact of better illumination in the factory premises.

However, Mayo was able to identify that the trigger for productivity was not lighting or any other independent variable.

The basic human factor, that this group of workers was singled out over all other workers in the factory, made them feel important.

This was an adequate trigger to motivate them to improve their productivity levels significantly higher, and working condition did not matter.

Modern Research on Hawthorne Effect

Hawthorne Effect Often Alters the Behavior of Subjects Who Are Part of a Specific Study.

That brings us to the next step in analyzing and applying Hawthorne Effect.

As we have seen in most social evolution and development, the time has always brought in many perceptible and pronounced changes in the interpretation of these theories.

This is exactly why it becomes rather important to study modern research on a phenomenon that was identified in the last century.

Moreover, the topic of today’s research is about the application and implementation of this inevitable bias.

This is operational in most of the workplaces, and management policies are also dependent on this.

Hawthorne effect often alters the behavior of subjects who are part of a specific study.

They tend to modify their behavior significantly if they are aware that they are under study.

This bias, therefore, creates a major problem and most times researchers would be unable to gauge the true impact of the development or study that they have undertaken.

There are examples of many studies whose outcome has been seriously affected by the presence of Hawthorne Effect.

This bias that triggers it in the personality of the subjects under study often changes the course of major experiments.

One of the most important ones to mention in this context is undoubtedly the 1978 study with regards to cerebellar neurostimulators.

The researchers were trying to analyze if these neurostimulators could help remove motor dysfunction in many individuals suffering from cerebral palsy.

However, as a result of the inevitable Hawthorne Effect, the results were nowhere near the real triggers.

Almost all the patients showed signs of improvement in their motor functions and indicated that they were happy with the treatment that they received.

– Their Improved Response System

Along with Hawthorne Effect, There Are Several Other Factors Too That Played an Important Role in Increasing the Productivity of Workers in Many Cases.

It also highlighted the fact when researchers undertook a few other quantitative study elements to substantiate their findings.

To their dismay and surprise, they realized that whatever little improvement was seen in the motor skills of the subjects under study was primarily due to Hawthorne effect rather than cerebellar neurostimulators.

According to the researchers overseeing this study, the extra attention that these subjects got from their therapists, doctors, nurses resulted in their improved response system.

But that is not all; there are many other examples of in-depth research where the original outcome was considered to be overstated due to Hawthorne effect.

Even after the dawn of the new millennium, the dichotomy offered by the Hawthorne effect is continuously in focus.

Recent researches have created a brand new concept.

They are indicating that it will be wrong to credit Hawthorne effect as the primary trigger for productivity.

In fact, there is a school of thought that feels not every group outcome can be blindly attributed to Hawthorne effect.

Chicago University

In 2009, a team of researchers from Chicago University, in fact, reanalyzed the entire data.

They found that along with Hawthorne effect, there are several other factors too that played an important role in increasing the productivity of workers in many cases.

However, it would be wrong to group them together.

Each study has to be considered separately.

Some other studies project a rather contradictory stance.

They indicate that increased productivity in many cases has a rather weak link with Hawthorne Effect.

They failed to find evidence of strong correlation despite series of studies on the issue.

More often than not, several other catalysts were found to have impacted higher productivity levels.

Essentially these studies reinstated that the increased productivity was not entirely due to Hawthorne Effect.

Additionally, they brought the focus on other meaningful triggers associated with productivity.

The novelty factor of researchers observing behavior and deducing conclusion from it, could also have played a role in over-emphasizing the Hawthorne Effect in many cases.

A possible explanation could be that some experimenters already had a set thought that they tried validating with experiments.

Hawthorne effect, in these cases, would be working in reverse order.

Validating the Hawthorne Effect

Instead of helping prove a strategy, they have directed the overall activity towards validating the Hawthorne effect.

Experimenters, in this case, set out to interpret the result of their study in a way that can confirm to their pre-decided conclusion.

In many ways, though modern research has not rubbished the role of Hawthorne effect.

It has indicated that team productivity is not entirely driven by this single factor.

Just deducing that the entire jump in productivity is only on the basis of a single motivation would be inaccurate.

Modern research often indicates that production cannot materially increase just because you are keen to stay ahead of the competition.

It is perhaps an oversimplification of a certain development or an outcome and may often not to do justice to the core concept.

That said, you cannot deny the distinctive presence of Hawthorne effect in many team events.

That is exactly why it is a rather popular tool used by businesses and management to improve productivity.

However, the fact is that it surely needs to be used in conjunction with several other factors to truly deduce the true impact of this phenomenon.

Especially, to interpret it with respect to industrial productivity, in general, is a key factor.

Therefore, research and experiment that probe this social phenomenon needs to take into account all of these various pre-conditions before completely attributing productivity jump to Hawthorne Effect.

Most Common Examples of Hawthorne Effect

Hawthorne Story: This Huge Expansive Social Development Owes It Development and Awareness to the Chicago Suburb

Well when you come across to analyze Hawthorne Effect, I am sure you are already well aware of the Hawthorne story.

After all, this huge expansive social development owes it development and awareness to the Chicago Suburb.

But apart from this famous example of the Hawthorne Effect, there are some very popular examples.

These have often been used to highlight the analysis that is drawn using this key measure of social behavior in the workplace.

There are two particularly famous and impactful examples that are worth mentioning in this context.

1. Relay Assembly Experiments

Relay Assembly Experiment to Learn What Hawthorne Effect Is.

If you refer to Wikipedia, this particular example to highlight what is Hawthorne Effect is called the Relay Assembly Experiment.

In this case, social behavior researchers had essentially chosen two women as their subject and then asked them to choose 4 more in the total test group.

The tests continued for 5 long years.

These two women worked in separate rooms between 1927-1932 assembling nothing else but the telephone relays.

They have mechanically measured their output and efficiency.

The number of finished relays that were dropped down the chute by each participant at the end of the day was used to identify the rate of success.

The actual experiment, however, began two weeks before the women were taken into confidence and moved into separate rooms.

Someone was already keeping a tab of the total number of chutes that were being dropped each day for 2 weeks before it all started.

So I am sure, your query would be did Hawthorne Effect manifest itself in the weeks after they were taken into consideration.

Some of the Most Interesting Outcome:

Here are some of the most interesting outcome.

  1. Productivity increased when they have given them 2 five-minute breaks.
    But when it was changed to 10-minute breaks and 6 5-minute breaks, their productivity reduced as they disliked the order.
  2. Output went up significantly when the entire day was reduced by 30 minutes
  3. Output actually peaked when they returned to original position.

Researchers based on these deductions assumed that workers can easily adapt to an environment.

However, they worked harder only when they realized that they are under study.

That is the period when the relative output peaked significantly.

Choosing one’s co-workers, getting to work with people you like and being treated special can easily trigger the quintessential Hawthorne effect.

2. Bank Wiring Room Experiments

The next Extremely Popular and Well-Known Example of Hawthorne Effect Is the Bank Wiring Room Experiment.

The next extremely popular and well-known example of Hawthorne effect is the bank wiring room experiment.

It is a study on the impact of payment incentives on individuals.

The whole study aimed at understanding the bigger trigger.

Would the will to excel overpower the motivation of getting better monetary incentives linked to your performance?

In many ways, this was considered the ultimate stress test for understanding the true mettle and standing of the entire Hawthorne Effect theory.

When production actually decreased despite payment incentives, there was a major hue and cry in support of the entire Hawthorne Effect view.

The main reason, however, was not putting self-respect before money.

It was a suspicion that more amount of payment incentive now might result in job losses later on.

So workers willfully agreed to work at a lower salary with long-term gains in mind.

Mayo was associated with the analysis and conduct of this study as well.

Early 1930s

It was again conducted in the early 1930s.

Researchers after probing deeper and rather thoroughly understood that overall productivity declined due to the fear factor.

They have equated the higher incentives with lower base rates.

As a result, they united in their social approach with a view of creating means of sustainable long-term gains.

Unsaid social norms were being made, and in many ways, it was concluded that they would all reply to management queries in the same way.

It is therefore needless to mention that the reports and results from these tests were severely skewed and was screaming Hawthorne effect in its complete execution.

What Is the Hawthorne Effect on Industrial Psychology?

What Is the Hawthorne Effect on Industrial Psychology?

Now comes the whole challenge and benefit of application of the Hawthorne Effect.

When you try and analyze what is the Hawthorne effect, and how can it used in Industrial productivity and the impact on it is often considered one of the key usages of this unique social phenomenon.

However, it is interesting to note that both Mayo’s and Landsberger’s initial work were all in the industrial sector, analyzing the worker’s productivity in relation to the work condition that they operate in.

Moreover, experts and researchers in the industrial field understand the value of interpersonal relation dynamics and social commitments in a far-reaching manner.

It is, therefore, very important to undertake the social analysis of the kind that probing the Hawthorne Effect would imply.

But you have to remember that the variables in this matter can skew results quite dramatically.

For example, if a set of colleagues don’t gel very well as a group or if the overall idea of being chosen for the specific task leads to Hawthorne Effect.

There Is Nothing That Fits the Hawthorne Effect Definition

There is, of course, another school of thought.

They feel that in reality, there is nothing that fits the Hawthorne Effect definition.

It is more of a placebo effect that is seen in business circles universally.

The jury on its exact validity and actual sustainability is highly debatable.

However that said, Hawthorne Effect and its various subparts are quite widely used across several parameters of industrial operation.

The role of social behavior and social acceptability cannot be denied in terms of industrial operations and maintaining workplace sanity.

Hawthorne Effect is used in a multi-faceted manner.

It can range from the basic psychology of instilling ownership amongst employees to the overall managerial stance taken to improve leadership.

This effect can be analyzed both directly and indirectly in several phases of the day to day operations.

Broadly the effort is to direct the Hawthorne effect phenomenon to help improve operational success with long-term benefits.

The Relevance of the Hawthorne Effect Today Is Quite Debatable

The Relevance of the Hawthorne Effect Today Is Quite Debatable

However, the relevance of the Hawthorne Effect today is quite debatable.

If you look at the many modern adaptations of the 20th-century experiments and their recent inferences, there are many points to ponder about.

You must also understand that social behavior research today has come a long way from the ancient approach that was used in the early 20th century when these theories first came into the popular discussion and became the subject of deep-rooted research.

You have to understand that the brilliance of a theory is after all in the application of this irrespective of the demands of time.

Theory of Gravity

Think of Newton’s theory of Gravity.

Even today centuries after he had proposed this revolutionary idea, nothing or no development globally can prove otherwise.

It is gravity alone that helps maintain the centrifugal balance of the Earth.

In fact, without the knowledge of Gravity and its power, many of our modern day developments would not have been even conceivable, forget about being possible in the first place.

Now that is what you would call as the success of a theory.

Now think of what is the Hawthorne Effect in the same line and consider the pros and cons of the suggestions made using the theory.

While as a social behavioral trend, I would say that peer pressure and toeing the popular line is a plausible fact but the assumption that alone can impact productivity, needs a lot more probing.

Can it single-handedly change the productivity dynamics?

The many experiments that are being conducted till date directed towards this single question.

For example, if you even analyze the bank wiring room experiment, it is true that peer-group pressure resulted in the outcome.

However, at the same time, you cannot deny that fear was the most important element in the entire trigger for that peer pressure that was eventually created.

They all behaved in a certain way due to their common fear.

That, in itself, is one of the biggest contradictions of the Hawthorne Effect.

Most times, it has been observed that whenever there is social driven behavioral pattern impacting productivity, there are some other triggers that are working simultaneously.

Therefore, the interpretation of Hawthorne Effect in modern times needs to take into account this fundamental fact.

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