Important Studies – The Hawthorne Effect

Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell

By Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell

While each year thousands of studies are completed in psychology and education, there are a handful that over the years have had a lasting impact on education and learning.

In a series of Extra Credit articles, I have been highlighting several seminal studies that have had a profound impact on teaching and learning.
The seventh article in this series explores how human beings readily change their behavior simply because they know they are being observed.
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How can behavior be changed?

This question is among the most pervasive and ever-present in the history of psychology.

For example, on the one hand, clinical psychologists describe how challenging and time-intensive it can be to change ingrained maladaptive behaviors. On the other hand, some studies show how easy it is to change seemingly established behavior patterns.

The Study – The Hawthorne Effect
In 1955 Henry Landsberger analyzed data from experiments conducted between 1924 and 1932 by Elton Mayo at the Hawthorne Works near Chicago. The Hawthorne Works was a large factory complex owned by the Western Electric Company. The goal of the company was to explore adjustments to the workers’ environment that might enhance productivity. Lighting in the plant was one of the many variables explored.

In the initial experiments, Elton Mayo adjusted the luminosity of the lighting and
concluded that brighter lights enhanced productivity. Simple, right?

The company explored other “opportunities” to enhance productivity, including decreasing the luminosity of the lighting.

Hmm? Indeed, the workers’ level of efficiency increased when anything was
changed. Landsberger, in his analysis of the Hawthorne data, concluded that productivity increased because the workers felt good about the attention they received.

Now known to every Psychology 101 student, the Hawthorne Effect is an omnipresent bias that must be accounted for in the design of social science experiments that involve subjects knowing that they are being observed. For example, countless education studies have proclaimed a programmatic intervention as successful, when in fact, it was less about the program and more about the special…

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