The Hawthorne Effect and Behavioral Studies

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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, some of the more recent findings suggest that many of the original claims made about the effect may be overstated.

A Brief History of the Hawthorne Effect

The effect was first described in the 1950s by researcher Henry A. Landsberger during his analysis of experiments conducted during the 1920s and 1930s. 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.

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. 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. When illumination was decreased to the levels of candlelight, production increased. In other variations of the experiments, the production also improved when breaks were eliminated entirely and when the workday was lengthened.

The results were surprising and the researchers concluded at the time that workers were actually responding to the increased attention from their supervisors. Researchers suggested that productivity increased due to attention and not because of changes in the experimental variables.

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, but later research has shown that these initial conclusions did not convey what really happening.

The term Hawthorne effect remains widely in use to describe increases in productivity due to participate in a study, yet additional studies have often offered little support or have even failed to find the effect at all.

Recent Research on the Hawthorne Effect

Later research into the Hawthorne effect has 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.

Levitt and List 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.

Some additional studies have failed to find strong evidence of the Hawthorne effect, and in many cases, other factors may also influence improvements in productivity. 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.

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.

Demand characteristics might also play a role in explaining this phenomenon. In experiments, researchers sometimes display subtle clues that let participants know what they are hoping to find. As a result, subjects will sometimes alter their behavior to help confirm the experimenter’s hypothesis.

While the Hawthorne effect has often been misrepresented and perhaps overused, Rogelberg notes that the term "continues to be a useful general explanation for the impact of psychological phenomena such as typical versus maximal performance, and socially desirable responding (i.e., faking good)."

So what can researchers do to minimize these types of effects in their experimental studies? One way to help eliminate or minimize demand characteristics and other potential sources of experimental bias is to utilize naturalistic observation techniques. However, it is also important to note that naturalistic observation is simply not always possible.

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.

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. Despite this, the term is still often used to refer to changes in behavior that can result from taking part in an experiment.

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  • 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 3. 2011; 224-238.
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