What Is the Hawthorne Effect? | Definition & Examples
The Hawthorne effect refers to people’s tendency to behave differently when they become aware that they are being observed. As a result, what is observed may not represent “normal” behavior, threatening the internal and external validity of your research.
The Hawthorne effect is also known as the observer effect and is closely linked with observer bias.
Like other types of research bias, the Hawthorne effect often occurs in observational and experimental study designs in fields like medicine, organizational psychology, and education.
What is the Hawthorne effect?
The Hawthorne effect occurs when a participant’s behavior changes as a result of being observed, rather than as a result of an intervention.
In other words, when groups or individuals realize they are being observed, they may change their behavior. This change can be positive or negative, depending on the research context. For example, people participating in a nutrition-related experiment may improve their diet solely because they are taking part in the experiment.
It’s important to note that participants must be aware that they are under observation for this effect to occur. Thus, the Hawthorne effect is a subtype of performance bias.
Example of the Hawthorne effect
Changes in behavior attributed to Hawthorne effect can seriously distort your conclusions, especially in terms of any assertions made about causal relationships between variables. This affects the internal validity of the study.
Relatedly, a Hawthorne effect can also compromise your ability to make generalizations. This affects the external validity of your study.
Criticism of the Hawthorne effect
Recent research into the original studies at Hawthorne Works has shown that the findings were flawed or overstated. In particular, significant differences between control groups and experimental groups led to the introduction of confounding variables that experimenters were unaware of at the time. It is highly likely that other factors also played a role in the original study.
Ultimately, it may be hard to determine exactly how participant awareness impacts study results. However, researchers must keep this in mind when designing studies or interpreting results with human-centered research.
Other explanations of the Hawthorne effect
There are a few other factors to keep in mind that can also explain behavioral changes in study participants. These include:
Participants who receive feedback may also have improved performance. For instance, in the context of employee productivity, increased attention from researchers can result in increased productivity. In other words, employees with regular access to information about their individual daily output or performance may perform differently to those who don’t.
Demand characteristics are subtle cues that can reveal the study’s research objectives to the participants. This awareness may lead them to change their behavior. For example, participants may feel motivated to please the researcher.
A temporary improvement in performance resulting from participation in a research study for the first time is known as a novelty effect. This improvement can also occur when a new element, technology, feature, or process is introduced into an experimental setting.
Because participants are unfamiliar with the new element, increased interest can result in an initial increase in performance or productivity. For example, students often perform better when a learning experience is new. However, the novelty effect wears off with time.
How to reduce the Hawthorne effect
The Hawthorne effect cannot be entirely avoided in research using participant observation or experimental research. However, there are a few things you can do to reduce it:
- Invest in interpersonal relationships at the study site. Sustaining contact with participants over time reduces participant reactivity and improves the quality of data collection.
- Give participants tasks unrelated to the purposes of the study. This can mask the research objectives from the participants. However, be sure to consider whether this is ethical to do.
- Whenever possible, opt for a naturalistic or covert observation. In this way, you can observe people in their natural surroundings without being seen. The downside here is that your ability to draw conclusions about causal relationships or generalize to other contexts is limited. There are also implications for participant privacy and informed consent here.
Other types of research bias
Frequently asked questions about research bias
- What are threats to external validity?
There are seven threats to external validity: selection bias, history, experimenter effect, Hawthorne effect, testing effect, aptitude-treatment and situation effect.
- What is performance bias in research?
Performance bias is a general term describing the effects of unequal treatment between study groups. As a result, study participants alter their behavior. There are two subtypes of performance bias—namely, the Hawthorne (or observer) effect and the John Henry effect.
- What are demand characteristics?
In research, demand characteristics are cues that might indicate the aim of a study to participants. These cues can lead to participants changing their behaviors or responses based on what they think the research is about.
Demand characteristics are common problems in psychology experiments and other social science studies because they can cause a bias in your research findings.
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