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What is the Hawthorne Effect – Causes & Examples

Published by at August 29th, 2023 , Revised On October 5, 2023

The Hawthorne Effect is one of the most intriguing concepts in behavioural studies and organisational management. Named after a series of studies at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s, this effect brings to light the impact of observation on human behaviour. But what exactly is the Hawthorne Effect? 

Let’s explore this in detail. 

What is the Hawthorne Effect?

The Hawthorne Effect refers to the phenomenon in which individuals modify or improve their behaviour in response to their awareness of being observed. The term originates from studies conducted at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Chicago in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The original study at the Hawthorne Works sought to determine the relationship between lighting levels and worker productivity. Surprisingly, researchers found that productivity increased both when the lighting was improved and when it was dimmed. It became clear that productivity was not necessarily linked to the lighting changes but rather to the fact that workers knew they were being observed.

The Hawthorne Effect suggests that people’s behaviour and performance can change when they know they are under observation. It highlights the challenges of conducting observational research, as the mere act of observation can influence the behaviour of the subjects. This can also lead to actor-observer bias.

In the broader context, the Hawthorne Effect has implications for workplace management and organisational studies. For instance, employees might work harder or perform better when they know they are being monitored or evaluated due to a bias for action. Conversely, understanding this effect can also help managers and researchers account for cognitive biases that might arise in their observations or studies.

Causes of the Hawthorne Effect

The causes or reasons for the Hawthorne Effect include:

Attention from Observers

Knowing they are being watched may make people feel special or important. This perception can lead them to perform better or differently than they would under normal circumstances.

Social Pressure

Being observed might create a subtle pressure to conform to expectations. Workers or participants may think that there is a desired behaviour and, therefore, try to exhibit that behaviour. This could stem from explicit bias towards certain ways of behaving.

Novelty Effect

The novelty of being under observation or participating in an experiment can cause participants to change their behaviour. This is not necessarily due to the observation itself but rather the change in routine or environment. In research, this is sometimes referred to as the ceiling effect.


Sometimes, the process of being observed comes with feedback about performance. This feedback, whether positive or negative, can influence behaviour.


If individuals believe that the observation is being done to detect improvement or that a change was made to improve their performance, they may unconsciously rise to that expectation. This closely ties in with the Pygmalion effect, where higher expectations lead to an increase in performance.

Temporary Motivation

Being watched may serve as a temporary motivator for some individuals. They might work harder or more efficiently knowing that their actions are being noted, but this effect may not be sustainable in the long term once observation ceases.

Social Facilitation

This is a psychological concept where individuals tend to perform simple or well-learned tasks better when other people are present. This could be due to increased arousal or the desire to be viewed favourably due to affinity bias.

Avoidance of Negative Evaluation

On the flip side, people might change their behaviour when being observed because they don’t want to receive negative feedback or be evaluated poorly.

Examples of the Hawthorne Effect

Here are some examples and contexts where the Hawthorne Effect has been identified or can be applied:

Original Hawthorne Studies

The original experiments involved altering the lighting conditions for a group of workers. Productivity increased regardless of whether the lighting was improved or worsened. The researchers concluded that the increased attention from the experiments themselves might have caused the productivity boost.

Corporate Productivity Studies

When a company decides to study the efficiency of a department, the employees, knowing they are under observation, might work harder or more efficiently than under normal conditions.

Health Research

In dietary or exercise studies, participants might alter their reported eating habits or exercise more diligently simply because they know they are being monitored.

Educational Settings

Students who are aware they are being observed or studied might perform better on tests or assignments than they otherwise would.

Speeding and Traffic Cameras

The presence of traffic enforcement cameras can cause drivers to reduce their speed, not necessarily because they are always conscious of obeying the law, but because they are aware of being watched and the potential for receiving a fine.

User Experience (UX) Testing

Participants in UX tests might use a product or service more carefully and methodically when they know their actions are being observed and analysed.

Hand Hygiene in Healthcare

Studies have shown that healthcare workers are more compliant with hand hygiene protocols when they know they are being observed.

Professional Development

An employee might perform their tasks with greater effort or enthusiasm when they know their supervisor or manager is observing, especially during performance reviews.

Environmental Behaviours

If people know they are being monitored for environmental practices like recycling, they might be more diligent in sorting waste correctly.

Public Behaviour

In spaces with visible CCTV cameras, some individuals might modify behaviours, such as not littering or not engaging in antisocial behaviours, because of the awareness that they are being watched.

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Why is the Hawthorne Effect a Problem

The primary discovery was that productivity increased not as a consequence of actual changes in working conditions introduced by the researchers but simply because workers were aware they were being observed. For a deeper understanding, one might consider looking into a scholarly source or a primary source to get first-hand data. Alternatively, a secondary source could provide an analysis of the primary data, offering a different perspective.

The Hawthorne Effect is considered a problem in research for several reasons:

Distorts Genuine Behaviour and Responses

Since people may change their behaviour when they know they are being observed, the data gathered may not accurately represent their typical or genuine behaviour.

Complicates Data Interpretation

If subjects alter their behaviour because they are aware of being studied, it becomes difficult to determine if observed changes are due to the experimental conditions or simply the fact of being observed.

Threat to Internal Validity

The Hawthorne Effect can introduce a confounding variable, making it challenging to determine if the independent variable is truly causing the observed effect. This problem can often lead to publication bias in studies.

Generalisation Issues

If the observed behaviour is not genuine or typical, then findings may not be generalisable to situations where people are not aware they are being observed.

Difficulty in Control

It is challenging to control the Hawthorne Effect. Even when participants are not directly told they are being observed, they may have suspicions, leading to altered behaviours.

Ethical Concerns

In attempts to mitigate the Hawthorne Effect, researchers might be tempted to hide the fact that an observation is taking place, but this can raise ethical concerns about deception and informed consent.

Some Other Explanations of the Hawthorne Effect

The exact reasons for the changes in behaviour when individuals know they are being observed have been a subject of discussion and research. Beyond the basic definition of the Hawthorne Effect, the following are some other explanations or factors that might contribute to this phenomenon:

Performance Feedback

  • If individuals know they are being observed and are subsequently provided with feedback about their performance, they might be more inclined to improve.
  • Continuous feedback can reinforce, encouraging participants to maintain or elevate their performance.
  • Being observed might induce a feeling of accountability, pushing individuals to put in extra effort when they know they’ll receive feedback.

Demand Characteristics

  • This term(demand characteristics) refers to subtle cues or signals that tell participants what is expected of them or how they should behave.
  • When participants are aware of the experiment’s purpose or the experimenter’s expectations (either through implicit cues or explicit instructions), they might change their behaviour to match those expectations.
  • For instance, if participants believe that the study is meant to measure productivity improvements with better lighting, they might unconsciously work harder when the lighting is improved simply because they think that’s the expected outcome.

Novelty Effect

  • The excitement or interest generated by something new or different can influence behaviour. In the context of the Hawthorne studies, the changes made in the workplace (e.g., adjusting lighting or work hours) might have been perceived as novel by the workers.
  • People tend to react positively to changes that break the monotony of their daily routines, even if only temporarily. So, when introducing a new factor, there might be a temporary spike in performance or behaviour due to this novelty.
  • Over time, as the novelty wears off, performance may return to baseline levels.

How to Avoid the Hawthorne Effect

Researchers can use blind observation techniques, where subjects are unaware they are being observed. Applying a source evaluation method can help in determining the reliability of the results obtained from such observations.

To counteract the Hawthorne Effect:

  • Researchers can use blind observation techniques, where subjects are unaware they are being observed.
  • Repeated measurements over extended periods might help, as the observation effect might wear off over time.
  • Informing participants about the importance of acting naturally and ensuring anonymity can sometimes minimise behaviour changes.
  • Using control groups can help to isolate the effects of observation.

Frequently Asked Questions

The Hawthorne effect refers to the phenomenon where individuals modify their behaviour in response to their awareness of being observed. Originating from studies at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, it highlights the impact of observation and attention on worker productivity and behaviour.

The Hawthorne effect is when individuals alter their behaviour due to the awareness of being observed. For example, workers might increase their productivity when they know they’re being studied, not necessarily because of any experimental changes, but because they are aware of the attention they are receiving from researchers.

The Hawthorne effect is named after a series of studies conducted at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works in Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s. The term was coined later by researchers to describe the phenomenon they observed. Elton Mayo played a key role in analysing the results of these studies.

The Hawthorne effect is not a theory but an observational phenomenon derived from a series of studies. It refers to the alteration of behaviour by individuals when they are aware of being observed. This concept has influenced theories and practices in social sciences, especially in organisational behaviour.

The Hawthorne effect is named after the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Chicago, where a series of studies were conducted in the 1920s and 1930s. Researchers observed that workers changed their behaviour when they knew they were being studied, leading to the coining of the term to describe this phenomenon.

The Hawthorne experiments consisted of four main phases:

  • Illumination Studies: Investigated the impact of lighting on productivity.
  • Relay Assembly Test Room: Examined the effect of various conditions on individual workers.
  • Mass Interviewing Program: Gathered workers’ sentiments and grievances.
  • Bank Wiring Room: Studied group work dynamics and their influence on output.

About Owen Ingram

Avatar for Owen IngramIngram is a dissertation specialist. He has a master's degree in data sciences. His research work aims to compare the various types of research methods used among academicians and researchers.