Hawthorne Studies and Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Studies and the Hawthorne Effect are threads through management schools and associated research from before the Great Depression to the present. They can be viewed from at least four vantage points. The Hawthorne Studies themselves were a series of collaborative investigations at the Hawthorne Works of Western Electric. The researchers began with a criterion of productivity and first studied environmental changes in illumination, encountered anomalies because production increased when illumination decreased to very low levels, and finally shifted toward recognition of social influences and personnel counseling. From one perspective, they linked the scientific management and the human relations movement schools. From a second standpoint, the studies attracted multiple disciplines interested in organizations (sociology, industrial, social, and then organizational psychology, organizational behavior, and human resource management). From a third outlook, they provide numerous lessons concerning the history of these fields in the unquestioning acceptance of secondary sources and in methods for studying history. From a fourth, methodological perspective, the Hawthorne Effect was defined as a confounding and biasing factor in intervention research that resulted from research participation (status or difference perception of participants). An example of how the effect has penetrated current methodological thinking is the widespread citation of the term in method and conclusion sections of contemporary research articles. This entry approaches the Hawthorne Studies from three vantage points:

  1. Genesis and growth of the studies
  2. Key findings of the Hawthorne Studies
  3. Role of the Hawthorne Studies and Hawthorne Effect in shaping the history and trajectory of industrial/ organizational (I/O) psychology and related disciplines

Genesis and Growth of the Hawthorne Studies

Ostensibly, the Hawthorne Studies began as attempts to study such factors as illumination and work breaks. In that sense they derived from a school of thought that was dominant in management thinking. The scientific management school, although sensitive to worker concerns, believed that extrinsic environmental factors accounted for most of the variance in performance and productivity; worker attitudes were not viewed as important at this time, but the seeds were sown with the development of the concept of attitude. Fritz Roethlisberger and William Dickson described multiple studies conducted at the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company in Cicero, Illinois, between 1924 and 1932. They published Management and the Worker in 1939, but this book was preceded by publications by Thomas Whitehead and Elton Mayo. Mayo, for example, worked in several ways to guide, motivate, and popularize the Hawthorne Studies, publishing a well-known book in 1933 titled The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization. The personnel interviewing and subsequent counseling programs were unique contributions of the research program, larger in scope than the other studies (encompassing more than 25,000 workers at one point) and much less well remembered; and yet they continued long after the other experiments ended (Katzell & Austin, 1992).

Key Findings of the Hawthorne Studies

The Hawthorne studies represent an early instance in which a firm, in this case the Western Electric Company, collaborated with a group of academicians in an effort to improve individual productivity and thus presumably organizational efficiency. The academics, including Elton Mayo and T. N. Whitehead, were faculty of the Harvard Business School. The original experiments dealt with modifications of illumination, wage incentives, and rest pauses—topics that would have gladdened the heart of F. W. Taylor and the scientific management school. What captivated psychologists and others were not those substantive results but the serendipitous findings highlighting the importance of social relationships: team development, informal supervision, and group norms. Specifically, the researchers found it necessary to shift (and then explain their shift) from a scientific management focus toward one that emphasized development of group norms and their enforcement through informal leadership.

Another prominent aspect of the work at Hawthorne was that it involved systematic field research—including time-series, experimental, and observational techniques. The researchers set up specific conditions that varied within and across groups. They tracked these conditions over many weeks and tallied production counts for the groups in the Relay Assembly Test Room and the Mica Splitting Room. The field experiments of Frederick Taylor and Frank Gilbreth had been less sophisticated in terms of research design and data analysis and carried out in the tradition of management rather than behavioral science. In the Hawthorne Studies, however, the interventions were supervised by teams of managers and behavioral scientists, and there were systematic, even if imperfect, efforts at experimental and statistical controls. An entire domain of Hawthorne bashing became quite popular after the reports of the research were promulgated, extending as far as a Marxist critique based on the concept of class struggle. It is possible to divide such critiques into methodological and learning hypotheses and attempt to refute the learning hypothesis adherents. One interesting research tactic employed by several individuals was to locate and interview individuals who had participated. Such combinations of qualitative and quantitative approaches to the study of history ought to become more influential.

As with many historical facts in I/O psychology, however, myth mixes with the mundane. Charles Wrege exposed many misconceptions in his dissertation, but this did not stop textbook authors from perpetuating the myths. Olson, Verley, Santos, and Salas (2004), in a recent analysis of textbook coverage of the Hawthorne studies, document the misconceptions in several ways. They reviewed the frequency of mention of various parts of the studies in 21 books and presented a table containing definitions of the effect provided by 13 authors. One way that confusion is sown is in descriptions of the layout and sequence of the studies, another in the ascription of greater importance than warranted to Elton Mayo, and a third in a failure to consult primary sources.

The Hawthorne Studies Role and Effects

One of the key effects of the Hawthorne Studies was as a general warning about alternative interpretations for research findings. This warning was especially true for large-scale field research. As a blanket tocsin the general Hawthorne effect was perhaps overused. Links to experimenter and expectancy effects might provide a more circumscribed and useful rationale. Undoubtedly, more specific interpretations of bias in research outcomes are preferred in contemporary circles.

Although the critics make valid points, they also miss important points. Despite demonstrable flaws of design and analysis, it was those studies and their philosophy that helped launch the human relations movement and the organizational branch of the I/O discipline. Study of the history of the field, in addition, can be enhanced through consideration of how the myths were established and perpetuated, including some of the techniques used by historians.

References:

  1. Dickson, W. J., & Roethlisberger, F. J. (1966). Counseling in an organization: A sequel to the Hawthorne researches. Boston: Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. Katzell, R. A., & Austin, J. T. (1992). From then to now: The development of industrial-organizational psychology in the United States. Journal of Applied Psychology, 77, 803-835.
  2. Olson, R., Verley, J., Santos, L., & Salas, C. (2004, January). What we teach our students about the Hawthorne Studies: A review of content within a sample of introductory IO and OB textbooks. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, Retrieved May 15, 2005, from www.siop.org/tip/backissues
  3. Roethlisberger, F. J., & Dickson, W. J. (1939) Management and the worker. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Graduate School of Business Administration.