Hawthorne effect

The Hawthorne is also referred to as observer effect. It was first discovered by Roethlisberger and Dickson in 1939. They were hired by General Electric (GE) to conduct a series of studies in their plant in Chicago to examine how to improve work conditions for increased productivity. The concerned employees worked in an assembly-line.

Roethlisberger and Dickson started with a measurement in the baseline condition. They measured the employee’s productivity without changing the work conditions. Then they planned to make one change in the work environment and measure again to compare if and how the value for productivity changed. Firstly they increased lighting, and found that productivity improved. Then they increased lighting more, and again found that the productivity improved. Then they put the lighting setting to its original level, and, surprisingly, found that the productivity improved.

Cause for improvement was non of the changes they made to the work environment. Cause for the productivity increase was simply that the employees felt valued and respected if asked about their work and that the employees knew when a change occurred that it is made to find the best working conditions which made them work harder.

For their experiment it really helped them to use an ABA test condition. Meaning if they would have stopped their experiment after an AB test (usual work condition and condition with increased lighting) they may would have drawn the conclusion that increased lighting increases productivity. Setting it back to its original level and measuring again revealed the effect.

The effect was then named after GE’s plant: Hawthorne effect.

Their study is also described in their book “Management and worker” which you can find as google-book online.

However it is not uncriticised. Some researchers mention that the important thing is not the awareness of the observation itself that causes a change but a the subjects interpretation of the situation. If the experimental condition maps with the participants goals it could change the behaviour. Also influential can be effects to want to “please” the experimenter.

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