What is the Hawthorne effect? Definition and impact in business

What is the Hawthorne effect? Definition and impact in business


The Hawthorne effect occurs when the behavior of study subjects is dictated not only by experimental factors but also by their awareness of participating in a test. Target of all the attention and finely observed by the investigator, the subject of the study demonstrates increased motivation and productivity. As a result, the results are biased: the cause and effect relationship of the experimental factors on the subject’s behavior is complex to formalize, the investigator finds it difficult to draw reliable and lasting conclusions from his study.

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It is in this context that marketing teams have every interest in controlling the Hawthorne effect when exploiting the results of their market studies.

What is the Hawthorne effect?

The phenomenon was detected during an experiment carried out in 1923 with the workers of the Western Electric factory, the Hawthorne Works, located in the suburbs of Chicago. It is then a question of determining the impact of luminosity on productivity at work, by varying the lighting parameters. The results indicate that worker productivity increases consistently, even in groups tested under unfavorable light settings. From 1924 to 1932, Professor Elton Mayo and his team of Harvard Business School theorists undertook advanced tests to understand this startling result. They introduce other variables: the amount of the salary, the duration of the breaks or even the authorization or not to speak during the work. Whatever the conditions, from one test group to another, Elton Mayo observes that productivity increases. However, this increase is not sustainable: after a few days, productivity stagnates, to finally decrease. The Hawthorne effect is theorized, and several findings emerge:

  • On the sociological level: being chosen to participate in an experiment promotes self-esteem and consequently increases motivation.
  • On the productivity aspect at work: the awareness of the subject of study to have an active role within a group, in a collective interest on the scale of the company, is enough to increase its productivity, whatever working conditions tested.
  • In terms of management: the observer naturally takes a participative position in the course of the investigation.
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The Hawthorne effect is not considered to be an inevitable phenomenon, but makes it possible to highlight a risk to be monitored when carrying out an experiment or exploiting the results of a market study. The Hawthorne effect also helps to understand certain behaviors in business.

How does the Hawthorne effect affect employee behavior?

The Hawthorne effect is seen in business, when employee productivity increases as a result of the special attention given to them rather than their working conditions. Employee behavior is beneficially affected by emotional factors, including:

  • The benevolent attitude of the management.
  • The increased interest of the manager for the work carried out.
  • Consideration of employee initiatives.
  • The employee’s awareness of being carefully observed.
  • Belonging to a united working group where emulation reigns.

The company observes that these psychological elements impact motivation and performance, in the same way as material and financial aspects such as brightness or salary. To this extent, the approach breaks with Taylorism, which advocates the partitioning of tasks and pay-for-results with a performance objective. The company draws lessons from this in terms of management.

How does the Hawthorne effect affect market research?

The Hawthorne effect reveals that respondent behavior in qualitative market research can be influenced in several ways:

  • The person, chosen from a multitude to be the subject of a study, feels pride in being at the center of the company’s interests. As a result, her satisfaction is evident, and she is in a good position to answer the questionnaire. In this context, the results are positively influenced. Illustration: a customer disappointed by his purchase publishes on his own initiative, under the influence of his emotion, a negative opinion on the social network of the brand; conversely, if the company takes the approach of a satisfaction questionnaire, the customer tends to moderate his remarks and show more indulgence. He feels himself to be an actor in the strategy of the brand, he is valued and thus inclined to be cordial.
  • The person questioned knows that he is being carefully observed, his answers are intended to be scrupulously studied. In this test context, the responses may lack spontaneity, in which case the results prove to be less representative. Illustration: the company carries out a market study to refine the functionalities to be developed on a new product; the person questioned takes the time to think about his answers and uses a constructed reasoning, whereas he would potentially buy the product under the influence of an emotion and not on the basis of a reasoned reflection.
  • The interviewer, unconsciously, risks directing the answers of the panel: either by taking an active part in the development of the test, or by formulating the questions in such a way as to influence the panel. It is indeed difficult to demonstrate neutrality, and all the more so when the interests of the investigator are directly linked to the results of the market study. Illustration: the question “Would you like to have your medicines delivered to your home?” results favorably in a positive answer, whereas the question “Would you be prepared to pay additional costs to have your medicines delivered to your home?” more easily paves the way for negative responses.
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The behavior of the Western Electric workers was guided by the attention paid to them by the management and not by the variations in light intensity, thus annihilating all the usefulness of the experiment. The company takes this risk in the context of its market research: obtaining biased results, affected by the respondents’ satisfaction at having been selected. To limit the risk of the Hawthorne effect, the interviewer takes basic precautions: preserving the anonymity of respondents, checking the neutrality of questions or even selecting a significant panel. The Hawthorne effect is difficult to detect. In any case, the investigator must therefore measure the relevance of the results of the market study before using them.

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