The Hawthorne Effect: Definition, Examples

Hawthorne Effect deals with the changes in individuals behaviour in response to their awareness of being observed. The effect is also referred to as the “Observer Effect.”

Hawthorne Effect


Hawthorne effect can be defined as the inclination of some people to perform better and work harder while they are being observed as a part of an experiment.

While the Hawthorne theory was being incorporated in several companies in the United States of America, a bunch of experiments were conducted in the Western Electric Company at the Hawthorne plant in Chicago. These experiments were studied by the researches of the same organization. Soon, these experiments became popular as Hawthorne studies or the Hawthorne effect.

Illumination Studies- Experiment 1

Illumination Studies was the first experiment conducted to examine the relationship between productivity and the level of lighting and the effect of changes in the work environment on productivity. Accordingly, the employees were divided into two teams namely the test group and the control group. The test team was subjected to varying levels of illumination throughout the period of experiment i.e. medium, high, and low illumination. These were varied for several days. On the other hand, the control team was subject to a constant level of illumination throughout the experiment. The result of the experiment was apparently surprising, there was a surge in productivity in the control team although the illumination was constant, it was more surprising to see a substantial increase in productivity even in the test group where the illumination was varied. The result was quite confusing and the researchers couldn’t conclude anything post the experiment and eventually took help from the academicians Fritz Roethlisberger and Elton Mayo from outside the organization. In order to arrive at a conclusion for the above experiment, the researchers of the organization, along with the academicians, started working on their second experiment- the relay assembly room experiment.

The Relay Assembly Room Experiment- Experiment 2

A group of 12 women employees were chosen and divided into 6 members into two groups- Control and Test groups. Changes were brought about in the test group, with varying rest periods and increased remuneration for increased productivity, while keeping the work conditions constant for the control group. This experiment continued for a period of two years and yet again the results were that both the groups exhibited increase in productivity. Based on the results the researches finally concluded that the increase in productivity, regardless of varying working conditions, was a result of the attention given to the employees. In other words, employees’ motivation and productivity were a result of attention given to them by the management, the effect was further coined as Hawthorne Effect.

Bank Wiring Observation Room Experiment- Experiment 3

The bank wiring observation room experiment was different from the other two experiments in the sense that the organization chose 14 male workers and instructed them to work as a group in a single room for a couple of months. The group was motivated with varying levels of incentives based on employee productivity. The employees were offered incentives for greater individual productivity and the group was also offered remuneration for the increase in productivity while expecting a substantial increase in output. In reality, the group actually produced a restricted output resulting in confusion again.

Depending on the analysis of the questionnaires and interviews, the researchers concluded that-

  • An informal group was established within the test group, and this group had its own unwritten rules through which it controlled its team members.
  • The standard output devised by the group was different from that of the management. For instance, if the management thought the group should produce 5 equipment, the team produced 3 because the latter thought 3 was good enough.
  • The group used techniques like social isolation; if any team member produced more, and such members of the team were ridiculed, mocked, and isolated for being the puppet in the hands of the management.

Drawbacks of Hawthorne Experiments

The Hawthorne effect has encountered various criticisms in the last 70 years as academicians and scientists have questioned the conclusions of this experiment. The two main criticisms of this effect are-

  • The statistical tools and methods employed in these experiments were defective and limited, hence couldn’t attain a concrete conclusion.
  • Results cannot be generalized; as the experiments were conducted on a small population of a single organization.


Hawthorne studies concluded that only financial incentives couldn’t aid in increasing productivity, the social and psychological needs of the employees must also be satisfied. Regardless of its shortfalls; Hawthorne experiments played a very important role in defining the needs and values of the human factor in a business organization. The attention given to the employees at their workplace today is a result of the Hawthorne Effect; throwing light on the various human dimensions; making a way for a lot of literature analyzing the human behaviour in the organization.

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