What is the Hawthorne effect?

Uncertainty and Misinformation

Tl;dr: The Hawthorne effect is when people behave differently because they know they are being watched.

The Hawthorne effect can impact our behaviors, including health habits, as well as scientific study results. We can use the Hawthorne effect to our benefit when we are seeking to make changes in our lives.

Picture this: Your friend works at a company doing data entry. They are on the computer all the time and their computer and back faces the wall (people can’t see what’s on the screen!). Maybe your friend shares with you that from time to time, they like to check social media for all the hot celebrity gossip while at work. However, the office recently reconfigured the desks and now the computer screen is facing towards their coworkers. They sadly share with you that they no longer know the latest hashtag trends. They stopped using social media at work because others can see what they are doing.

This is an everyday example of the Hawthorne effect. The Hawthorne effect occurs when people change their behavior because they know someone else is watching. This effect was first identified in a study at the Hawthorne Works, a Western Electric plant in Illinois. The researchers wanted to know if changing working conditions, like lighting, impacted productivity. They found that any change in the environment improved productivity (even ones that should make it harder to work, like reducing the lighting) and these improvements disappeared as soon as the experiments were over. They concluded that productivity improved simply because the workers were being watched. This became known as the Hawthorne effect. While this study had some flaws and the results may have been overstated, it is generally accepted that observation does have some impact on behaviors of individuals both in research and in day to day life.

Researchers work to minimize the Hawthorne effect in clinical trials by using hidden observation methods (when ethical), but we can use the Hawthorne effect to our advantage when trying to make lifestyle or behavior changes. Having an accountability buddy with regular check ins can help us stick to our goals. By keeping an eye on things, we are more likely to change our behavior because our buddy is watching. We want to impress, not let them down! Writing down goals and keeping logs of the behaviors we are addressing (like dietary changes or exercise) can also help! Coaches and mentors are another way to steer the Hawthorne effect to our benefit.

Stay safe. Stay well.

Those Nerdy Girls


Catalog of of Bias: Hawthorne effect

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