The Hawthorne effect refers to a phenomenon which is thought to occur when people observed during a research study temporarily change their behavior or performance (this can also be referred to as demand characteristics). Others have broadened the definition to mean that people’s behavior and performance change following any new or increased attention. The Hawthorne studies have had a dramatic effect on management in organizations and understanding the impact of different factors in the workplace.
The purpose of the original experiments was to study the effect of lighting on workers’ productivity. When researchers found that productivity almost always increased after a change in illumination, no matter what the level of illumination was, a second set of experiments began, supervised by Harvard University professors Elton Mayo, Fritz Roethlisberger, and William J. Dickson.
They experimented on other types of changes in the working environment, using a study group of five young women. Again, no matter the change in conditions, the women nearly always produced more. The researchers reported that they had accidentally found a way to increase productivity. The effect was an important milestone in industrial and organizational psychology and in organizational behavior, bringing awareness to the impact of social factors and socialization in the workplace. In this way, management and researchers alike recognize that people are essentially social beings, and their relationships with others are highly significant in everything that they do.
However, some researchers have questioned the validity of the effect because of the experiments’ design and faulty interpretations. Thus, the Hawthorne effect refers not only to the findings relating to productivity, but also to the issue of people's behavior being changed by the experimental study itself, which confounds the factors under investigation.
The Hawthorne experiments sought to determine the motivating factors behind success and productivity in the work place. The hypothesis focused on economic factors being the biggest contributor to work place success. However, the results suggested different factors were important.
Social factors of the employment itself were found to be the biggest motivator in job performance, mainly how much attention was being paid to individual employees. The Hawthorne effect is, essentially, the positive effect on a person or group's behavior from knowingly being watched. It is a positive effect because when a person suspects they are being observed, they are more prone to act at a higher level of efficiency than they normally act. Another way to interpret this is the failure on the part of the experimenters to identify that their observation or experiment is motivating the subjects to act differently than they normally do; they act in a way that they think the scientists want them to act.
Like the Hawthorne effect, the definition of the Hawthorne experiments also varies. The Hawthorne Works, located in Cicero, Illinois, just outside of Chicago, belonged to the Western Electric Company, and the studies were funded by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences at the behest of General Electric, the largest manufacturer of light bulbs in the United States. The purpose was to find the optimum level of lighting for productivity.
Most industrial and occupational psychology and organizational behavior textbooks refer to the illumination studies, and usually to the relay assembly test room experiments and the bank wiring room experiments. Only occasionally are the rest of the studies mentioned.
During two and a half years from 1924 to 1927, a series of illumination experiments using different study groups were conducted by the industrial engineers of Western Electric Company Works in Cicero; Illinois.
At this point, researchers of Western Electric realized that something else besides lighting was affecting productivity. They suspected that the supervision of the researchers had some effect, so they ended the illumination experiments in 1927.
During 1927, a Harvard professor, Elton Mayo, along with his associates, joined the study as consultants. The experiments started again and lasted through to 1932. These experiments consisted of redesigning jobs, changing workday and workweek lengths, additional rest times, and studying the factor of wage changes.
In the relay-assembly experiments, the researchers wanted to identify how other variables could affect productivity. They chose two women as test subjects and asked them to choose four other workers to join the test group. Together the women worked in a separate room over the course of five years (1927-1932) assembling telephone relays.
Output was measured mechanically by counting how many finished relays each dropped down a chute. This measuring began in secret two weeks before moving the women to an experiment room and continued throughout the study. In the experiment room, they had a supervisor who discussed changes with them and at times used their suggestions. Then the researchers spent five years measuring how different variables impacted the group's and individuals' productivity. Some of the variables were:
Changing a variable usually increased productivity, even if the variable was just a change back to the original condition. Researchers concluded that the workers worked harder because they thought that they were being monitored individually. However this can be interpreted as the natural processes of the human being to adapt to the environment without reference to the experiment.
Researchers hypothesized that choosing one's own coworkers, working as a group, being treated as special (as evidenced by working in a separate room), and having a sympathetic supervisor were the real reasons for the productivity increase. One interpretation, mainly due to Mayo, was that "the six individuals became a team and the team gave itself wholeheartedly and spontaneously to cooperation in the experiment." (There was a second relay assembly test room study whose results were not as significant as the first experiment.)
The purpose of the bank wiring room experiments was to find out how payment incentives would affect group productivity. The surprising result was that they had no effect. Ironically, this contradicted the Hawthorne effect: although the workers were receiving special attention, it did not affect their behavior or productivity. However, the informal group dynamics studied were a new milestone in organizational behavior.
The study was conducted by Mayo and W. Lloyd Warner between 1931 and 1932 on a group of 14 men who put together telephone switching equipment. The researchers found that although the workers were paid according to individual productivity, productivity did not go up because the men were afraid that the company would lower the base rate. The men also formed cliques, ostracized coworkers, and created a social hierarchy that was only partly related to the difference in their jobs. The cliques served to control group members and to manage bosses; when bosses asked questions, clique members gave the same responses, even if they were untrue.
The Hawthorne effect is notable from several perspectives of social awareness and cognition. It seems clear that in some cases there is a large effect that experimenters did not anticipate, that is due to participants' reactions to the experiment itself. So as a methodological heuristic, it is useful, but as an exact predictor of effects, it is not: it is difficult to ascertain the Hawthorne effect in every situation. To understand when and why we will see a Hawthorne or experimenter effect, we need more detailed considerations.
From another perspective, it is suggested that the most important (though not the only) aspect of this is how the participants interpret the situation. This is important because factory workers, students, and most experimental participants are doing things at the request of the experimenter. What they do depends on what their personal goals are, how they understand the task requested, whether they want to please the experimenter and/or whether they see this task as impinging on other interests and goals they hold, what they think the experimenter really wants. Besides all those issues that determine their goals and intentions in the experiment, further aspects of how they understand the situation can be important by affecting what they believe about the effects of their actions.
Another issue is the question of what direct causal factors might be involved. These could include material ones that are intended by the experimenter, feedback that an experiment might make available to the participants, or changes to goals, motivation, and beliefs about action effects induced by the experimental situation.
Several methodologies of the Hawthorne experiments came under fire long after the results were published and accepted. In the experiments, the observed workers were in an improved setting compared to normal working conditions, and supervisors had a more positive attitude as observers rather than normal foremen. Extended rest periods, as well as pay increases and decreases, also played a role in the workers' performance. In one case, some of the subjects were dropped for a trend of decreasing outputs and replaced long after the experiment had begun. This may have had unknown effects on those who were there from the beginning. Any of these variables may have impacted the work performance independently of merely being observed. It is difficult to say to how large a degree these extraneous factors influenced the results, but these flaws in methodology have not been examined thoroughly.
The results of the experiment provide a few key points in terms of the different social and psychological factors that impact employee productivity.
The first deals with the over-reliance on the aptitude of individuals to determine job success. It is possible that strong physical and mental potential can have some determination of success in the work place, but social factors have more of an influence on work produced.
The next point of interest describes the impact of informal organization on progress. The researchers in the experiment discovered a kind of work place society, as opposed to the mentality of isolated individuals previous studies had taken to workers. The more cohesive and friendly employees were to each other, and supervisors were to the workers, the higher the productivity and output from individuals.
The third discusses the norms of work-groups. The researchers saw the work-groups arrive at a group consensus about what a fair days amount of work is, and they set their efforts in accordance with this goal, resolving together to not work further even in the face of a financial incentive.
The final point suggests that the workplace is a social system made up of interdependent parts. The workplace, further, needs to be treated like a society in order to be successful.
The main idea taken away from this experiment is the impact of attention on those involved in an experiment. When the workers realized they were being watched by the researchers, they modified their own behavior and acted in a different way than they may act when not being watched. When being watched, individuals behavior is improved to demonstrate a positive outward appearance. This conclusion has become a precedent for research experiments since this one, it has become customary to take the "Hawthorne effect" into consideration when creating and conducting any social or psychological experiment, as the results can be altered if this factor is not accounted for.
The Hawthorne experiments show that the work place is an area of socialization just like any other area where people congregate (schools, religious centers, and so forth). In the work groups of these experiments, the socialization was dependent upon the interactions amongst the workers and between their superiors and themselves. A strong, positive rapport led to higher productivity and happier workers. The workers also created their own norms of production, reflecting a kind of socialization where each worker realizes the limits of their coworkers and come to a mutual agreement concerning when they have produced enough work that day. These norms were rarely violated even in the face of financial incentive; the workers together acted as one part of a whole.
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