Hawthorne studies

views updated May 29 2018

Hawthorne studies The experiments which inspired Elton Mayo and others to develop the Human Relations Movement. From 1924 the Western Electric Company of Chicago, influenced by scientific management theories, measured the impact of different working conditions (such as levels of lighting, payment systems, and hours of work) on output. The researchers, Fritz Roethlisberger and William J. Dickson, concluded that variations in output were not caused by changing physical conditions or material rewards but partly by the experiments themselves. The special treatment required by experimental participation convinced workers that management had a particular interest in them. This raised morale and led to increased productivity. The term ‘Hawthorne effect’ is now widely used to refer to the behaviour-modifying effects of being the subject of social investigation, regardless of the context of the investigation. More generally, the researchers concluded that supervisory style greatly affected worker productivity.

Later work, involving covert observation of working practices, showed how the pace and organization of work is regulated by informal social norms and organization among workers. These studies led Mayo to claim that workers are not primarily motivated by economic factors but by management styles and informal work organization. Enhanced productivity therefore depends on management sensitivity to, and manipulation of, the ‘human relations’ of production. Critics point to methodological defects in the Hawthorne experiments and question the key conclusion drawn from them—that economic factors are less important in determining productivity than the degree of psychological satisfaction which work provides. The best discussion of the studies is still to be found in John Madge's The Origins of Scientific Sociology (1963). See also EXPERIMENTER EFFECTS.

Hawthorne Effect

views updated May 11 2018


The effect on a person's or a group's behavior of knowingly being under observation is called the "hawthorne effect." It is commonly positive or beneficial, because knowing that they are being observed encourages people to behave or perform at a higher level of efficiency than they might otherwise. The name derives from a study on employee satisfaction at the General Electric manufacturing plant in Hawthorne, Illinois, where the effect was first observed.

John M. Last

(see also: Halo Effect; Observational Studies )