Revisting the ‘Hawthorne effect’

The Hawthorne Effect is famous for showing that people will change their behaviour when observed, or that any change increases productivity, or perhaps that experimenters always influence their participants. It has become one of those legends of psychology that turns out to be not quite what we believe.

It’s the subject of the second edition of BBC Radio 4’s excellent Mind Changers series which discovers that the original studies, their interpretations and the effect itself have become somewhat mythical.

The studies were conducted on employees of the Hawthorne works in Chicago, a factory that built relays switches for the telephone industry.

The research, conducted between the 1920s and 30s, was not always as systematic as it could have been and was mostly close observations of five women, giving rise to fascinating experimenters’ reports, some of which are read out on the programme.

Unlike studies today, the researchers carefully noted their opinion of the personality of the workers, their conversations, what was happening in their lives and how this affected their productivity.

The actual findings that give rise to the ‘Hawthorne effect’ are in doubt and are still debated (there was some fascinating news on the Advances in the History of Psychology blog about this just recently) but the study was hugely influential in that it was the first to connect the personal to the commercial.

Workers were no longer just cogs in the industrial machine who were lost from sight as soon as they left the factory, but people whose work was intimately connected to their home and social lives.

This is now the basis of modern management techniques and the Hawthorne studies, regardless of the debates over the evidence, were the inspiration.

Anyway, another brilliant documentary from the Mind Changers series put together by the ever-excellent Claudia Hammond.

Link to Mind Changers on the Hawthorne Effect.

2 Comments

  1. Posted August 9, 2009 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Perfect timing, Vaughn. I’m teaching a course covering both Scientific Management and the Human Relations School this Wednesday! This’ll be a great link to which to refer the students.
    Claudia is fantastic as always. Keep up the great work guys!

  2. rita
    Posted August 10, 2009 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    I’m on the other end of these “techniques”, and if the basis of modern management techniques is seeing
    “people whose work was intimately connected to their home and social lives”….”no longer just cogs”
    I’ll eat my hat – perhaps Dave Bull could tell me what these techniques are all about these days – I thought it was screwing the workers, but I may be wrong……….


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