Author Archives: Stuart Buck

The Hawthorne Effect

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If you took a psychology class in college, you may have run across the so-called “Hawthorne Effect,” which is discussed in many college textbooks (see page 31 of this extensive survey from 2004) and is still cited in various studies.  But the original studies that gave the “Hawthorne Effect” its name have long been discredited, and textbooks don’t always give you the full details. First, a quick definition of the “Hawthorne Effect” from Wikipedia:

The term gets its name from a factory called the Hawthorne Works, where a series of experiments on factory workers were carried out between 1924 and 1932. There were many types of experiments conducted on the employees, but the purpose of the original ones was to study the effect of lighting on workers’ productivity. Researchers found that productivity almost always increased after a change in illumination but later returned to normal levels. This effect was observed for minute increases in illumination. . . . A second set of experiments began and were supervised by Harvard University professors Elton Mayo, Fritz Roethlisberger and William J. Dickson. They experimented on other types of changes in the working environment, using a study group of five young women. Again, no matter the change in conditions, the women nearly always produced more. The researchers reported that they had accidentally found a way to increase productivity.

But is the original research valid?  Does it really prove that workers improve their productivity no matter what changes are made to their environment, or — more broadly — that people tend to improve their performance with any change that is being studied? 

No.  As a 1998 New York Times article pointed out, “only five workers took part in the study, . . . and two were replaced partway through for gross insubordination and low output.”  In addition to the extremely small sample size and attrition, there are two additional problems: 1) the group’s performance didn’t even always increase, and 2) there were many confounding variables, such as the use of incentive pay (!) and rest breaks. In short, as this 1992 article from the American Journal of Sociology pointed out, the original data show “slender or no evidence of a Hawthorne effect.” 

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