Motivational Effects that Defy: The Hawthorne Effect

“And you think you’re so smart.” I can still hear the words, repeated for comic effect by a teacher of mine in grad school. He was, if I remember correctly –and that is a fairly sizable “if” given the years and changes in teaching methodology  beliefs that I have hopped from and to in the interim–referring to grammar and how it is often a slipperier system than the iron-clad set of facts that the authoritative reference tomes and logically-organized structural syllabuses of courses, programs, and student textbooks gave lie to.

But it is in the nature of the modern person–and by modern I mean living, thinking, now…and by now I mean, like at the moment you are reading this–to show a strong favoritism for the knowledge currently believed to be true. We sneer at the fallacious beliefs of past generations, mostly confident that we live in a time when the truth has been uncovered, and academia, science, whatever, has finally gotten it right. If there is a problem, it is not that it is not understood by someone somewhere, but rather that the correct knowledge has not disseminated properly (or perhaps because evil, ignorant agents have introduced false ideas and muddied the waters, but that’s another story). We may quote Hamlet’s rebuke to Horatio about there being more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our blah blah blah, but the illusion of knowledge is strong and we are susceptible.

But all that modern certainty won’t always help us in the world of teaching. Teaching is one of those undertakings that seems to defy logical thinking at times. There are several motivational effects, for example, that are surrounded by a bit of mystery, that have moved in and out of fashion in the last decades, and that have proven slipperier than imagined. These are effects where “…performance or other significant objective effects come from (non-objective) causes of humans simply expecting something,” as Steve Draper writes on a web page of his. He also lists up several of them: the Hawthorne effect, the Pygmalion effect, and the Placebo effect. This latter one being the item of search that brought me to Mr. Draper’s web page.  In a couple of posts I’d like to explore these ideas a little, beginning with the Hawthorne effect. I’d like to consider what they are and whether they may be exploitable by teachers, even though they are not well understood.


The first of these is the Hawthorne effect, named after the factory in Chicago where several classic studies were performed over the period from 1924 to 1932.  In the studies, several changes were made in the working environment to see what effect they would have on productivity. In a nutshell,  all changes that were made–somehow, and against reasonable expectations–led to increases in productivity. In poking around the web for more information, one gets the impression that the Hawthorne studies are something like one of Harry Potter’s bogarts in that each person sees something different in them. From glowing nostalgic essays to a  New York Times article that goes as far as calling it an urban myth in a 1998,  it seems the Hawthorne studies and the Hawthorne effect produce different cognitive and emotional effects in different people.

It is perhaps not surprising that business people look back on the seminal series of on-site experiments that saw workers as complex social beings. They were ground-breaking in that they were some of the first empirical field-based studies and  introduced the idea of human relations in management, states Harvard Librarian Laura Linard on the BBC Mind Changers podcast devoted to the Hawthorne effect (try here if the audio isn’t working).

But the Hawthorne effect is probably most famous as a caution to experiment designers to be careful what effect they cause by just observing people. The simple act of running an experiment and observing people will possibly cause them to change their behavior. Framed another way, “people who are subject to intervention have their own goals and motives and respond accordingly and that is an important fact in research” (Lee Ross, in the BBC podcast). This sometimes over-simplified causal relationship is one of the reasons the effect has become academically contentious, in addition to some procedural flaws and sloppiness that is. Some people seem to have extrapolated that ANY intervention can effect improvements in performance, which is just wishful thinking, states Mecca Chiesa (again in the BBC podcast). Chiesa and Hobbs (2008)  after a long overview study of the use of the term Hawthorne effect suggest that the term is applied to too many phenomena (internal cognitive functions, environmental factors, social effects, and sometimes a combination of these) to be considered useful anymore. They actually suggest retiring it.

So beyond the cautionary lesson for experiment designers, if we try to read into the Hawthorne effect more to see if there is something we can use for our classes, we get into rather unscientific territory. But maybe we can say this: intervention has power. Intervention provides a message that is at the heart of education: I care about your performance, I want to help you improve it; and I’m trying something in my power to do so. Intervention quite possibly has the power to influence the impression learners have of an educational setting. Interventions can possibly make learners aware that they are contributing to the advancement of teaching and learning; and improve the  social cohesion in the group; and perhaps induce a more  positive opinion of the instructor and even the slightest desire to make that instructor a little happier or at least indulge them a little. And if that is indeed true, well then I would think that improved performance is highly likely. A Hawthorne effect? No, more likely a host of other inter-playing psychological effects, but I am not one to sneer at improved performance, just like the managers of Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works were not likely to sneer at the better performance and higher profits they were after.

To learn more, try this site maintained by the Harvard Business School, or the resources provided by the producers of Mind Changers, the BBC radio documentary series.

Chiesa, M. and Hobbs, S. (2008), Making sense of social research: how useful is the Hawthorne Effect?. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38: 67–74. doi: 10.1002