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117. Hawthorne Effect: How You Unintentionally Impact Every Experiment, a Behavioral Economics Foundations Episode

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Today, we are digging in on the Hawthorne Effect. This effect is named after a series of tests done at Western Electric’s Hawthorne location back in the 1920s. The aim of the study was to see how changes in worker conditions would impact productivity, and it was one of the first bits of research into determining worker opinions and mindset into the company’s planning process.
Before we get to that, I am very excited to share that it has been officially announced that I will be speaking at Podcast Movement Virtual this year! I’m on a panel about creating better pitches for being a guest on podcasts so your efforts don’t get deleted. Learn more and get your ticket.
The Hawthorne Effect has two main impacts: 1) people change their behavior when they know they are being watched (especially if they know what the watcher is hoping to achieve), and 2) giving people an opportunity to be involved in the process can boost morale, productivity and more
As with every concept, there are two sides to this coin. Often, you want to avoid letting people know they are being watched as it will impact results. However, as you’ll learn in the episode, there are some specific times and advantages to having people know they are being watched. Understanding this concept more will help you apply the logic within your business for the best possible results.

Show Notes:

  • [00:45] I am very excited to share that I will be speaking at Podcast Movement Virtual this year!
  • [03:51] The Hawthorne effect is named after a series of tests done at Western Electric’s Hawthorne location back in the 1920s and 1930s. The aim was to see how changes in worker conditions would impact productivity, and it was one of the first bits of research into determining worker opinions and mindset into the company’s planning process.
  • [04:50] In 1924, they were part of a study to see how the brightness of lighting would impact output…the results were very puzzling…
  • [05:24] A few years later, Hawthorne started a new experiment with Harvard to see how relays could be created more efficiently.
  • [06:05] The studies concluded that one big difference was being able to provide input and an ability to be treated as a human person with opinions and worth. These findings resulted in changes in working conditions far beyond the Hawthorne location and Western Electric over the decades that followed.
  • [06:27] The other important piece of information from these studies is the finding that when people know they are being watched, and especially when they know what the researchers are looking for, it biases the results.
  • [06:59] When modern researchers have looked back on the data from the original Hawthorne studies, they found some issues. For one thing, there were too many factors being changed at once, and that likely influenced the outcome of the research.
  • [08:19] In its simplest form, the Hawthorne Effect is saying that when people know they are being observed, or that there is an experiment taking place, it changes their behavior. The mere act of doing an experiment impacts the results.
  • [09:01] If you are trying to find out what people naturally do, you are running an experiment of some kind and want to see if a small change can impact behavior, you do not want those involved in the test to be biased and change their actions simply because they are being tested.
  • [09:41] The true intent of a behavioral or psychological study like this will often be hidden within the experiment itself.
  • [11:04] Other studies have shown that when people know what the researchers are looking for, they will on some level give a little extra effort to help prove them right. So, if it is important that you get a natural view of what is going on in the brain or behavior, you want to be as incognito as you can.
  • [13:36] An example from my own visits to branches during my corporate life, and why staying for a longer period of time is important.
  • [14:30] It’s better to integrate with the team as much as you can to become “one of them” so they let their guard down. Sporadic visits don’t have the same impact.
  • [14:59] If you are looking for something specific in those visits, don’t tell the people on the team what you are trying to do when it can be avoided.
  • [16:38] Stanford University found that for the simple tasks, monitoring helped boost productivity because the workers made a game out of accomplishing the tasks so they wouldn’t get bored.
  • [17:03] For those with more complex tasks, productivity went down. Those workers felt the monitoring was too controlling and impacted their ability to do a good job. They felt rushed, which created stressful time pressure. 
  • [17:22] With simple tasks that can get monotonous, monitoring that encourages gamification can be really helpful in boosting productivity and making it more fun for workers. With more complex stuff, people may feel threatened, be scared of punishment for mistakes, or make them focus too narrowly on things that might not be fully important.
  • [19:08] Remember, being treated well and being involved in the process was determined to be a big reason why the Hawthorne studies had such a big impact on productivity.
  • [20:20] That was another key piece of the Hawthorne studies, the boost in productivity happened in all the cases, like with the lights, when you turned them up, down, or kept them the same people had increased productivity during the study but they reverted when they got back to the normal work environment.
  • [21:06] Be careful when you have a hypothesis or are going in with a goal to make sure you aren’t too focused on finding the outcome you are looking for.
  • [22:06] Digging deeper is always a good idea. And now that you know how the Hawthorne effect can be helpful and how it can be a hindrance, you have the opportunity to learn about your teams and hopefully boost morale, productivity, efficiency, and so much more.

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