What Is The Hawthorne Effect?

Why do we increase our performance when they watch us work?

Sometimes, when a group conducts research where participants’ performance on a task is evaluated, they do so above what is usual for them. This is not due to a newly discovered innate talent, but rather to what scientists call the ‘Hawthorne effect’.

This effect, discovered almost by accident by Elton Mayo more than 80 years ago, seems to manifest itself especially in research situations. We briefly explain its history and the different interpretations it has received ..

Experiments at the Hawthorne factory

E. Mayo, an Austrian industrial psychologist, carried out a series of experiments between 1924 and 1933 at the Hawthorne factory, in order to investigate the relationship between lighting conditions and the productivity of its employees.

In the initial phase of the study, Mayo divided the workers into two groups: one worked under the same lighting conditions and the other under a light that the experimenters gradually turned off. Contrary to expectations, both groups increased their performance gradually.

This unexpected event motivated Mayo to continue evaluating the relationships between performance and other physical variables, such as those that produced fatigue and monotony in workers. Again, it was found that although the changes introduced were detrimental a priori, performance improved.

The most surprising thing about the study was that, even in the stages in which conditions were less favorable, there was no decrease in production as expected, which revealed the influence of variables other than those considered relevant at first. moment by researchers, such as that of social factors, in  explaining productivity.

The conclusions of the Mayo experiment

Mayo’s group concluded that this was due to the research situation itself and the presence of experimenters, a phenomenon that in 1953 was called the “Hawthorne effect” in honor of the facilities where the investigations were carried out.

However, the workers had a different opinion. For them, the factor that had the most weight in the continuous increase in performance was the improvement of personal relationships between workers and management. Apparently, in order to promote collaboration, the experimenters created a warm climate where special attention was paid to the demands of the workers and they felt heard.

This suggestion became a conclusion and served as the basis, years later, for a new stream in business administration and management that  would place the emphasis on human relations, and would soon replace the stream that emphasized efficiency and productivity through scientific study.

What do we know about the Hawthorne effect

In general, the most widely accepted modern definition describes the Hawthorne effect as follows: The Hawthorne effect is the improvement of results simply by being part of an investigation or the increase of performance due to the introduction of a certain change in a study.

Social psychologists propose that subjects, realizing that they are being observed, generate beliefs about what experimenters expect of them. Motivated by conformity and social desirability, individuals change their behavior to align with these beliefs.

It is impossible to give a precise answer about its mechanisms, since each discipline has taken the name of “Hawthorne effect” to describe different phenomena, and therefore they propose different explanations. Due to this, its meaning has been mutating and investigating the effect has been confusing and lax.

From the multiple definitions proposed by social psychologists, six characteristics are extracted that are specific to the situations in which the Hawthorne effect occurs:

  • Novelty of the situation.
  • Artificiality of the situation.
  • Changes introduced in the experiment.
  • The worker’s belief that the situation is beneficial to him.
  • Awareness of being studied or observed by an evaluator.
  • Reduction of worker boredom.

Researchers often establish a good relationship with subjects in order for them to collaborate with them. In this way, the experimenter may be introducing changes in behavior through the creation of a warm climate and an environment where the complaints and suggestions of the workers are heard.

Criticism of the concept

In a research context, any alteration in behavior as a consequence of its observation or study is called the Hawthorne effect. For this reason, some authors point out that it is an a posteriori interpretation of unexpected results, especially when these are contrary to the initial hypothesis.

Even Mayo’s original research has been called into question and criticized numerous times. Alternative interpretations of performance enhancement have been offered that shake the foundations of research.

For example, the cessation of strict supervision by employers, receiving positive attention, the introduction of rest breaks, or the perceived possibility of losing one’s job are alternative explanations to those originally proposed by Mayo and his collaborators.

The experiments also received other negative criticisms of their design; the experts who worked had no research training and the results were not sufficiently contrasted.

Today most of the research devoted to the validation of the Hawthorne effect concludes that there is not enough evidence to support its existence.

Thus, a concept that for years has served as a scapegoat in the scientific literature is probably nothing more than a reflection of a  bias in the interpretation of the results decades ago.

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