What is the Hawthorne effect?

What is the Hawthorne effect?


The Hawthorne effect is an extensively discussed topic in organisational and industrial psychology. The Hawthorne effect refers to when individuals in an experiment perform their assigned tasks effectively and correctly under the supervision of the researcher. For example, if the teacher was present in the classroom, the students would do their work rather than gossip with their friends. Similarly, when the supervisor is watching the staff, they focus on their work instead of using their mobile phones. Between the periods late 1920s and 1930s, several experiments were conducted to study how the Hawthorne effect works. 

Background of the Hawthorne effect experiment

The “Hawthorne effect” was initially described by Henry A. Landsberger in 1958, after a series of experiments conducted at Western Electric Hawthorne Works near Chicago. Hawthorne Works is a large factory located in Illinois. A team from the Harvard Business School plans to experiment with Hawthorne Works.

The motive of the researchers is to study whether the effect of light increases productivity. The psychologist Elton Mayo, the sociologist Roethlisberger, and the company representative William Dickson conducted the studies at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works. There are four different experiments done by the researchers. They are; 

  • The illumination experiment
  • The relay assembly test room experiment
  • The mass interviewing programme
  • The bank wiring observation room experiment

Illumination experiment 

In 1926, researchers conducted an experiment to identify how changes in lighting affected the worker’s productivity. The illumination experiment was one of the experiments of the Hawthorne Work’s experiments. The researchers initially divided the workers into two groups: the experimental group and the control group.

For the experimental group, the lighting level varied;  for the control group, the lighting remained constant. In this experiment, researchers found that both groups had the same range of productivity. The experimental groups show the same level of productivity even when the lighting decreases. Productivity was dropped only when the light was insufficient to work. This showed that lighting changes didn’t affect productivity. Instead, something else was influencing the worker’s performance.

Read More: The Asch Conformity Experiment and Its Implications

Relay Assembly Test room experiment  

For this experiment, the researchers set up a relay assembly test room, and women workers were the participants of this experiment. The work is to assemble the telephone relays. This experiment 

was conducted to understand how different changes in working conditions affected group productivity. The following are the changes: 

  1. Initially, researchers adjusted the incentive system, and they focused on small groups rather than larger groups, which increased productivity. 
  2. They then introduced short break periods in the morning and evening, gradually extending the rest periods from five to ten minutes, also boosting productivity. 
  3. The researchers reduced the break periods to five minutes and increased the frequency of the break periods; productivity decreased. The workers felt the frequent break disrupted their workflow rhythm. 
  4. Another change is the researchers reducing the breaks to two ten-minute sessions;  additionally, they provided the workers with morning coffee or soup with sandwiches and an evening snack, which further increased productivity and boosted the workers’ morale. 
  5. The last change is made in working hours, such as allowing workers to go home one or one and a half hours earlier than the usual time. This also showed an increase in productivity. 

Throughout the experiments, an appositive supervisor-worker relationship emerged, and the researcher found the supportive work environment contributed to higher productivity levels. 

Read More: Understanding Milgram’s Experiment

Mass interviewing programme 

The mass interviewing programme conducted between 1928 and 1930 involved around 20,000  interviews to understand employee attitudes towards various aspects such as company policies,  supervision, insurance plans, promotions, and wages. Initially, the interviewer asked direct questions like whether the workers liked their supervisors or thought they were fair, etc.

But these questions often end with simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, and sometimes it makes workers upset. To fix this, they changed their approach to non-directive interviewing. Instead of asking questions,  interviewers listened to what workers had to say without interrupting or giving advice. This way, workers could share their feelings more openly, providing researchers with a better understanding of their behaviour. 

Read more: The Stanford Prison Experiment

The interviews uncovered several important insights for the researchers: 

  1. Complaints from workers often revealed deeper personal issues. 
  2. The feelings of the workers about their jobs have been influenced by their personal preferences and relationships with others. 
  3. The position of a worker in the company affected how they saw things like work hours and pay. 
  4. The company’s value system and social norms are important for the satisfaction of the workers.
  5. The behaviour of a worker is shaped by their experience in groups, both inside and outside of the company. 

These findings showed that group behaviour had a big impact on how workers acted. As a result,  the researchers decided to study small groups of workers more closely to understand their behaviour in the workplace. 

Bank wiring observation room experiment 

The bank wiring observation room experiment aims to see how small groups influence individual workers. A group of fourteen male workers was selected for this experiment. Each worker’s hourly wage was based on their average output, and a bonus was given based on the group’s overall effort. Researchers expected that efficient workers would push less efficient ones to work harder to benefit from the group bonus. But this didn’t happen. Instead of that, the workers set their output standards, and they wanted to avoid unemployment and protect slow workers.  From this experiment, the researchers found that there is a connection between the workers that never broke. 

Read More: 10 Great Experiments in the field of Psychology

The Hawthorne experiments showed that workers are motivated by more than just money. They are social beings, and their positive interaction with groups plays a significant role in their motivation. Every organisation should understand and respect the social dynamics of the workers. 

Reference  +
  • Kenton, W. (2024, May 31). Hawthorne Effect Definition: How it works and is it real.  Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/h/hawthorneeffect.asp#:~:text=The%20Hawthorne%20Effect%20is%20when,late%201920s%20and%20earl y%201930s 
  • Chand, S. (2014, February 24). 4 Phases of Hawthorne Experiments – Discussed! | Business  Management. Your Article Library. https://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/management/4-phases of-Hawthorne-experiments-discussed-business-management/27888 
  • Kenton, W. (2024b, May 31). Hawthorne Effect Definition: How it works and is it real.  Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/h/hawthorne-effect.asp
  • Simply Psychology. (2024, February 13). Hawthorne Effect in Psychology: Experimental  Studies. https://www.simplypsychology.org/hawthorne-effect.html

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