Basics What Is the Hawthorne Effect? By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MSEd Facebook Twitter Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book." Learn about our editorial process Updated on November 29, 2022 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by David Susman, PhD Medically reviewed by David Susman, PhD David Susman, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist with experience providing treatment to individuals with mental illness and substance use concerns. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Nick David / Getty Images Table of Contents View All Table of Contents History Examples Does It Really Exist? Other Explanations How to Avoid It The Hawthorne effect is a term referring to the tendency of some people to work harder and perform better when they are participants in an experiment. The term is often used to suggest that individuals may change their behavior due to the attention they are receiving from researchers rather than because of any manipulation of independent variables. The Hawthorne effect has been widely discussed in psychology textbooks, particularly those devoted to industrial and organizational psychology. However, research suggests that many of the original claims made about the effect may be overstated. History of the Hawthorne Effect The Hawthorne effect was first described in the 1950s by researcher Henry A. Landsberger during his analysis of experiments conducted during the 1920s and 1930s. Why Is It Called the Hawthorne Effect? The phenomenon is named after the location where the experiments took place, Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works electric company just outside of Hawthorne, Illinois. The electric company had commissioned research to determine if there was a relationship between productivity and work environments. The original purpose of the Hawthorne studies was to examine how different aspects of the work environment, such as lighting, the timing of breaks, and the length of the workday, had on worker productivity. Increased Productivity In the most famous of the experiments, the focus of the study was to determine if increasing or decreasing the amount of light that workers received would have an effect on how productive workers were during their shifts. In the original study, employee productivity seemed to increase due to the changes but then decreased once the experiment was over. What the researchers in the original studies found was that almost any change to the experimental conditions led to increases in productivity. For example, productivity increased when illumination was decreased to the levels of candlelight, when breaks were eliminated entirely, and when the workday was lengthened. The researchers concluded that workers were responding to the increased attention from supervisors. This suggested that productivity increased due to attention and not because of changes in the experimental variables. Findings May Not Be Accurate Landsberger defined the Hawthorne effect as a short-term improvement in performance caused by observing workers. Researchers and managers quickly latched on to these findings. Later studies suggested, however, that these initial conclusions did not reflect what was really happening. The term Hawthorne effect remains widely in use to describe increases in productivity due to participation in a study, yet additional studies have often offered little support or have even failed to find the effect at all. Examples of the Hawthorne Effect The following are real-life examples of the Hawthorne effect in various settings: Healthcare: One study found that patients with dementia who were being treated with Ginkgo biloba showed better cognitive functioning when they received more intensive follow-ups with healthcare professionals. Patients who received minimal follow-up had less favorable outcomes.School: Research found that hand washing rates at a primary school increased as much as 23 percent when another person was present with the person washing their hands—in this study, being watched led to improved performance.Workplace: When a supervisor is watching an employee work, that employee is likely to be on their "best behavior" and work harder than they would without being watched. Does the Hawthorne Effect Exist? Later research into the Hawthorne effect suggested that the original results may have been overstated. In 2009, researchers at the University of Chicago reanalyzed the original data and found that other factors also played a role in productivity and that the effect originally described was weak at best. Researchers also uncovered the original data from the Hawthorne studies and found that many of the later reported claims about the findings are simply not supported by the data. They did find, however, more subtle displays of a possible Hawthorne effect. While some additional studies failed to find strong evidence of the Hawthorne effect, a 2014 systematic review published in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology found that research participation effects do exist. After looking at the results of 19 different studies, the researchers concluded that these effects clearly happen, but more research needs to be done in order to determine how they work, the impact they have, and why they occur. Other Explanations While the Hawthorne effect may have an influence on participant behavior in experiments, there may also be other factors that play a part in these changes. Some factors that may influence improvements in productivity include: Demand characteristics: In experiments, researchers sometimes display subtle clues that let participants know what they are hoping to find. As a result, subjects will alter their behavior to help confirm the experimenter’s hypothesis. Novelty effects: The novelty of having experimenters observing behavior might also play a role. This can lead to an initial increase in performance and productivity that may eventually level off as the experiment continues. Performance feedback: In situations involving worker productivity, increased attention from experimenters also resulted in increased performance feedback. This increased feedback might actually lead to an improvement in productivity. While the Hawthorne effect has often been overstated, the term is still useful as a general explanation for psychological factors that can affect how people behave in an experiment. How to Reduce the Hawthorne Effect In order for researchers to trust the results of experiments, it is essential to minimize potential problems and sources of bias like the Hawthorne effect. So what can researchers do to minimize these effects in their experimental studies? Conduct experiments in natural settings: One way to help eliminate or minimize demand characteristics and other potential sources of experimental bias is to utilize naturalistic observation techniques. However, this is simply not always possible. Make responses completely anonymous: Another way to combat this form of bias is to make the participants' responses in an experiment completely anonymous or confidential. This way, participants may be less likely to alter their behavior as a result of taking part in an experiment. Get familiar with the people in the study: People may not alter their behavior as significantly if they are being watched by someone they are familiar with. For instance, an employee is less likely to work harder if the supervisor watching them is always watching. A Word From Verywell Many of the original findings of the Hawthorne studies have since been found to be either overstated or erroneous, but the term has become widely used in psychology, economics, business, and other areas. More recent findings support the idea that these effects do happen, but how much of an impact they actually have on results remains in question. Today, the term is still often used to refer to changes in behavior that can result from taking part in an experiment. 13 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Schwartz D, Fischhoff B, Krishnamurti T, Sowell F. The Hawthorne effect and energy awareness. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013;110(38):15242-15246. doi:10.1073/pnas.1301687110 McCambridge J, Witton J, Elbourne DR. Systematic review of the Hawthorne effect: New concepts are needed to study research participation effects. J Clin Epidemiol. 2014;67(3):267-277. doi:10.1016/j.jclinepi.2013.08.015 Letrud K, Hernes S. Affirmative citation bias in scientific myth debunking: A three-in-one case study. Bornmann L, ed. PLoS ONE. 2019;14(9):e0222213. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0222213 McCarney R, Warner J, Iliffe S, van Haselen R, Griffin M, Fisher P. The Hawthorne effect: a randomised, controlled trial. BMC Med Res Methodol. 2007;7:30. doi:10.1186/1471-2288-7-30 Pickering AJ, Blum AG, Breiman RF, Ram PK, Davis J. Video surveillance captures student hand hygiene behavior, reactivity to observation, and peer influence in Kenyan primary schools. Gupta V, ed. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(3):e92571. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0092571 Understanding Your Users. Elsevier; 2015. doi:10.1016/c2013-0-13611-2 Levitt S, List, JA. Was there really a Hawthorne effect at the Hawthorne plant? An analysis of the original illumination experiments. 2009. University of Chicago. NBER Working Paper No. w15016, Levitt, SD & List, JA. Was there really a Hawthorne effect at the Hawthorne plant? An analysis of the original illumination experiments. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. 2011;3:224-238. doi:10.2307/25760252 McCambridge J, de Bruin M, Witton J. The effects of demand characteristics on research participant behaviours in non-laboratory settings: A systematic review. PLoS ONE. 2012;7(6):e39116. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0039116 Chwo GSM, Marek MW, Wu WCV. Meta-analysis of MALL research and design. System. 2018;74:62-72. doi:10.1016/j.system.2018.02.009 Gnepp J, Klayman J, Williamson IO, Barlas S. The future of feedback: Motivating performance improvement through future-focused feedback. PLoS One. 2020;15(6):e0234444. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0234444 Hawthorne effect. The SAGE Encyclopedia of Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation. doi:10.4135/9781506326139.n300 Murdoch M, Simon AB, Polusny MA, et al. Impact of different privacy conditions and incentives on survey response rate, participant representativeness, and disclosure of sensitive information: a randomized controlled trial. BMC Med Res Methodol. 2014;14:90. doi:10.1186/1471-2288-14-90 Additional Reading Landy FJ , Conte JM. Work in the 21st Century: An Introduction to Industrial and Organizational Psychology. New York: John Wiley and Sons; 2010. McBride DM. The Process of Research in Psychology. London: Sage Publications; 2013. By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book." See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? 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