What is the Hawthorne Effect?

Sometimes, when a group carries out an investigation where the performance of the participants in a task is evaluated, they do it over what is usual in them.

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Sometimes, when a group carries out an investigation where the performance of the participants in a task is evaluated, they do it over what is usual in them. This is not due to a newly discovered innate talent, but 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 your story and the different interpretations you have received.

Experiments at the Hawthorne factory

E. May, Austrian industrial psychologist, conducted between 1924 and 1933 a series of experiments 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 were gradually extinguishing. Contrary to expectations, both groups increased their performance gradually.

This unexpected fact 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 a priori harmful, the performance improved.

The most surprising thing about the study was that, even in the stages in which the conditions were less favorable, there was no reduction in production as expected, which showed the influence of variables other than those considered relevant in a first moment by researchers, like that of social factors, in the explanation of productivity.

Conclusions of the May experiment

The Mayo 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 opined differently. For them, the factor that had more weight in the continuous increase in performance was the improvement of the personal relationships between workers and management. Apparently, with the intention of promoting 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 a basis, years later, for a new trend in the administration and management of companies that would put emphasis on human relations, and soon replace the current emphasizing efficiency and productivity through scientific study.

What we know about the Hawthorne effect

In general, the most accepted modern definition describes the Hawthorne effect in the following way: the Hawthorne effect is the improvement of results simply by being part of a research or performance increase 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 the experimenters expect from them. Motivated by conformity and social desirability, individuals change their behavior to align it with these beliefs.

It is impossible to give a precise answer about their mechanisms, because 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 not very rigorous.

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.
  • Worker’s belief that the situation is beneficial for him.
  • Awareness of being studied or observed by an evaluator.
  • Reduction of boredom of the worker.

Frequently, researchers establish a good relationship with the 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 workers’ complaints and suggestions are heard.

Reviews to the concept

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

Even Mayo’s original research has been questioned and criticized numerous times. Alternative interpretations have been offered to increase performance that shake the foundations of research.

For example, the cessation of strict supervision of businessmen, receiving positive attention, the introduction of breaks for rest or the possibility of losing the perceived employment are alternative explanations to those originally proposed by Mayo and his collaborators.

The experiments also received other negative criticisms of its design; the experts who worked did not have research training and the results were not contrasted sufficiently.

Today, most research dedicated 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 likely to be no more than a reflection of a bias in the interpretation of results decades ago.