Hawthorne Effect

workers-in-factoryThe Hawthorne Effect is a phenomenon in which individuals alter their behavior in response to being observed, and usually refers to positive changes. Workers participating in a study might, for example, temporarily become more productive as a result of being observed. The effect generally refers to alterations in behavior by participants in a research study. However, in organizational psychology it may be used more broadly to refer to any change in worker behavior that comes from being observed. For example, workers might behave differently when managers are around.

History of the Hawthorne Effect

The term “Hawthorne Effect” originated during a study in the 1920s in which researchers investigated the effects of illumination, financial incentives, and frequent breaks on worker productivity at the Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company. The study then broadened to examine group dynamics and social relations within an organization.

The original researchers at the Hawthorne Plant drew four specific conclusions about organizational behavior:

  1. Individual aptitude is a poor predictor of job performance. Instead, productivity is strongly affected by relationships and social structure within an organization.
  2. Workplaces establish their own cultures and social systems.
  3. Organizations establish norms about expected daily productivity. Theses norms strongly affect and predict the productivity of individuals within the group.
  4. Relationships between supervisors and workers influence worker productivity and the ways in which workers complete daily tasks. The Hawthorne researchers referred to this as the informal organization and structure within an organization.

Criticism

Most researchers believe that the Hawthorne Effect is attributable to the fact that individuals participating in a study feel singled out and special and therefore subtly alter their behavior. However, industrial psychologist H. Mcllvaine Parsons has argued that the studies at the Hawthorne Plant did not demonstrate what they purported to. He pointed out, for example, that fear and uncertainty about the purpose of a study may alter worker productivity; it is not necessarily the “specialness” workers feel as a result of being participants the study that alters their behavior. Others have argued that novel conditions created by a study might not be properly controlled by experimenters, resulting in altered behavior.

References:

  1. American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
  2. Rice, B. (n.d.). The Hawthorne defect: Persistence of a flawed theory. Retrieved August 05, 2012, from http://www.cs.unc.edu/~stotts/204/nohawth.html

Last Updated: 01-9-2018

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