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The Hawthorne Plant Study:
A Flawed Experiment
In 1927, researchers began a study in the Hawthorne plant of the Western
Electric Company in Cicero, Illinois. They had been called in by the factory’s
managers to find out what conditions in the factory might be changed to boost
productivity. The researchers designed a study in which productivity was the
dependent variable and length of rest periods, workday, and workweek were the
The researchers selected five women as participants in the study. The
women were to work as a team in a room where they could be observed. The
researchers introduced rest pauses of varying lengths throughout the workday.
They observed the women to see how their productivity was affected. The
researchers then began to shorten the workday and, later, the workweek. Again,
they observed the changes in productivity.
At first, the researchers observed that as they increased rest periods and
shorted the workday and workweek, the women’s overall output increased. It
appeared that, with more rest, workers returned to their jobs refreshed and
therefore were able to produce more. To check their findings, the researchers
slowly returned to the original schedule—with shorter rest periods, a longer
workday, and a longer workweek.
To the surprise of the researchers, the women’s output remained higher
than it had been at the beginning of the study. How could that be? The research
team concluded that the increase in output was caused not by the independent
variables (length of rest pauses, workday, and workweek) but by another
variable—the women’s awareness that they were being observed. They felt
special because of the unusual attention they were receiving; thus, they worked
This phenomenon came to be known as the “Hawthorne Effect.” It was a
valuable finding, and led to the theory that one effective way to increase worker
productivity was simply to pay more attention to the workers. However, its
value notwithstanding, the finding was accidental and a result of flawed study
To test the variables they wanted to test, the researchers could have
conducted a blind study. In such as study, at least some of the participants
would not have known they were being observed. Alternatively, the researchers
could have established a control group—a group of participants who knew they
were being observed but did not receive any of the treatments that the members
of the experimental group received.
The design of the Hawthorne study had some other flaws as well. For one
thing, the experimental group was exceedingly small. A sample size of five is
really not large enough to be able to generalize conclusions about the larger
population. Furthermore, the sample did not remain constant over the course of
the whole experiment. Two of the women in the group were replaced in the
middle of the study because they talked too much, their productivity was low,
and they were considered a negative influence on the others. Their removal may
well have biased the results in favor of increased productivity.
Moreover, the researchers may have misinterpreted the results of the
study. The conclusion that productivity remained high even after the women
returned to the original schedule was not completely correct. Total output
stayed about the same, but it was achieved in more hours. In other words,
hourly productivity actually dropped. In addition, the researchers never
considered that the longer one does a job, the more skilled one becomes. That in
itself may increase productivity.
Because of these flaws, the existence of the Hawthorne Effect has been
called into question. The Hawthorne Effect remains only a hypothesis.
1. Why do you think being observed may make some people work harder
than others? Provide some examples from your own lives.
2. List some instances when attention might have a negative effect or no
effect at all.
3. What might account for the differences in performance reactions to the
4. How might you redesign the Hawthorne study to eliminate its flaws?