While use of the term 'Hawthorne Effect' is thriving in journals and textbooks, its meaning is so vague as to be unhelpful. That's according to Mecca Chiesa and Sandy Hobbs, who begin their argument by identifying the first use of the term. This was by John French in 1953, as he described experiments on the productivity of factory workers at the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company, Chicago, between 1927-1933.
"From a methodological point of view," French wrote, "the most interesting finding was what we might call the 'Hawthorne Effect'....it was the 'artificial' social aspects of the experimental conditions set up for measurement which produced the increases in group productivity."
In other words, certain changes were put in place by the factory to increase productivity, but it turned out the benefit to productivity came not from the deliberate changes, but rather from the mere attention of the people investigating.
At least, that is one interpretation of what the Hawthorne effect is. The trouble, Chiesa and Hobbs allege, is that journal articles and book authors all vary in their use of the term. Whereas I mentioned the causal role of the investigators' attention, other accounts refer variously to the "presence of an observer", the setting up of a "warm climate", "concern" or "friendly supervision".
There is similar variation in how the Hawthorne effect is supposed to exert its influence. By some accounts, the effect is unconscious, whereas others refer to "feelings of pride", a "sense of participation" or to "job satisfaction".
The looseness of the term hasn't been helped by the fact that its use has spread from industrial psychology to educational and developmental psychology, and even to medicine where it is sometimes confused with the placebo effect.
What's worse, Chiesa and Hobbs add, when people refer to the Hawthorne Effect, they seldom mention the fact that the original Hawthorne experiments were actually severely flawed. Two of the five participants were replaced mid-study (one of them having allegedly "gone Bolshevik"), so any observed alteration in productivity could have come from a change of personnel.
Given its "multiple, contradictory, and imprecise" meanings, Chiesa and Hobbs conclude that the concept of a "Hawthorne Effect" adds nothing to our understanding of the problems faced when conducting empirical research with human participants, and may actually be a hindrance.
Chiesa, M., Hobbs, S. (2008). Making sense of social research: how useful is the Hawthorne Effect?. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38(1), 67-74. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.401
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.