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What Is the Hawthorne Effect?

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What Is the Hawthorne Effect?
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Definition:

The Hawthorne effect is a term referring to the tendency of some people to work harder and perform better when they are participants in an experiment. Individuals may change their behavior due to the attention they are receiving from researchers rather than because of any manipulation of independent variables.

The effect was first described in the 1950s by researcher Henry A. Landsberger during his analysis of experiments conducted during the 1920s and 1930s at the Hawthorne works electric company. The electric company had commissioned research to determine if there was a relationship between productivity and work environment.

The focus of the original studies was to determine if increasing or decreasing the amount of light workers received would have an effect on worker productivity. Employee productivity seemed to increase due to the changes, but then decreased at after the experiment was over. Researchers suggested that productivity increased due to attention from the research team and not because of changes to the experimental variables. Lansdberger defined the Hawthorne effect as a short-term improvement in performance caused by observing workers.

Later research into the Hawthorne effect has suggested that the original results may have been overstated. In 2009, researchers at the University of Chicago reanalyzed the original data and found that other factors also played a role in productivity and that the effect originally described was weak at best.

Observations:

  • "The original data have since been re-analysed, and it is not so clear whether the original results hold up. Nevertheless, the concept has been established - the very fact that people are under study, observation or investigation can have an effect on them and the results."
    (Earl-Slater, 2002)

  • "One way to deal with the Hawthorne effect (and demand characteristics) is to observe the participants unobtrusively. This can be done using the naturalistic observation technique. However, this is not always possible for all behaviors. Another way to deal with the Hawthorne effect is to make the participants' responses in a study anonymous (or confidential). This may eliminate some of the effects of this source bias."
    (McBride, 2013)

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References

Light work. (2009, June 6). The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/businessfinance/displayStory.cfm?story_id=13788427

Earl-Slater, A. (2002). The handbook of clinical trials and other research. London: Radliffe Medical Press.

Landsberger, H. A. (1958). Hawthorne Revisited. Ithaca.

McBride, D. M. (2013). The process of research in psychology. London: Sage Publications.

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