What Is The Hawthorne Effect?

By Antonia Čirjak on February 26 2020 in Did You Know

The Hawthorne effect is a phenomenon in psychology in which individuals adjust their behavior because they are being observed.
The Hawthorne effect is a phenomenon in psychology in which individuals adjust their behavior because they are being observed.
  • The originator of the Hawthorne experiment was actually a sociologist called Henry Landsberger, however, the effect was not named after him.
  • The name for the effect was taken from the location where the study was performed in the 1920s.
  • The experiment itself was not very well received in the scientific community once it was made public due to many inadequacies in the methodology.

The Hawthorne effect is a phenomenon in psychology in which individuals adjust their behavior because they are being observed. Think about various situations from your life where you adjusted your behavior because someone you considered important was watching you. Maybe it was your boss and you wanted to present yourself as a good worker, or maybe it was some new friends you met and you wanted to leave a good first impression.

This act of observing can, and sometimes do have an effect on our actions and behavior. Since the origin of the term in the 1920s and early 1930s, the Hawthorne effect has been both used and criticized in the fields of organizational psychology, business, and economics. 

The History Of The Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne effect was originally constructed by a sociologist called Henry Landsberger, who made various important contributions in the area of industrial organization. The name of the term actually comes from the location where experiments were conducted in the 1920s. It was an electric company in Illinois called Western Electric's Hawthorne Works. The owner of the company enquired for research that would explore the relationship between the productivity of the workers and their environment at the workplace.

This experiment was eventually conducted by Landsberger and his fellow researchers. The considered factors were the length of the lunch break, lighting inside the factory, financial incentives and such. For example, the adjusting of the light inside the factory seemed to increase the productivity of the workers, but that same productivity experienced a decline when the experiment came to its end.

The researchers also tried adjusting the length of the workday and even cutting out all of the breaks workers had, but the productivity was always improving and declining after the experiment was over. What these conditions suggested was that productivity was actually increased because of the observing and the attention the workers were experiencing. In their opinion, it was not because of the actual adjustment to the quality of life in the workplace. The researchers described this phenomenon as an informal organization within an organization. 

Critique Of The Hawthorne Effect

Like almost every psychological experiment in history, The Hawthorne effect endured a variety of scientific critiques. Because there was no real scientific objectivity being used while arriving at some of the conclusions, the study was not particularly well-received among certain members of the scientific community.

Some academics even questioned its entire existence and scientific influence because it was not supported by any valid evidence. Also, the researchers at the Hawthorne did not take into account variables such as class consciousness, and the uncertainty about the experiments' purpose that the workers might have felt.

Since the origin of the experiment, much of the original statements and observations were found to be misrepresented and overemphasized. Nonetheless, the Hawthorne experiments provided various insights for the field of psychology and even business and economics, among others. The term is still used today to characterize changes in behavior that can occur while participating in experiments and even in various social situations in our life.

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