• The Hawthorne effect says that increased observation equals increased productivity.
  • This theory explains why we might perform better when our boss is in the room or when we’re working out with others.
  • This effect was first observed during a series of experiments, which intended to understand how different factors at work might affect worker performance.
  • These researchers altered elements in the work environment like lighting, breaktime, and work hours—and in every case, it resulted in increased productivity.
  • They concluded that increased levels of productivity resulted from increased attention, rather than changes in the work environment.
  • While current studies fail to reach the same definitive conclusion, many still use this term to describe the effects of observation on our level of performance.

Just recently, I made an interesting discovery at the gym. I’m one of those gymgoers who sticks to what they know they like—I like to run, so I’m basically shackled to a treadmill as soon as I walk in. But, of course, some days are better than others. Some days I can run 4 miles without any breaks in between, while on others I just can’t find the motivation. I began to wonder what contributed to my increase and decrease in motivation: Was it my diet? Did it have to do with my energy levels? Were my muscles tired or sore on the bad days?

Finally, I reached a revelation. One day, I was jogging leisurely when someone started running on the treadmill next to me. As they increased their speed, I did too. And I didn’t let myself stop until they stopped first. Looking at my stats, I saw that I ran my 4 miles and faster than I ever had before. It dawned on me that when other people were nearby, I performed better.

Have you ever had a similar experience? Say, you worked harder at the gym when other people were around, or you were more productive at work when the CEO popped into your office. You can thank the Hawthorne effect for this.

What Is the Hawthorne Effect?

The Hawthorne effect essentially says that we do better when other people are watching us. This was observed during a series of experiments conducted during the 1920s and 1930s at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works electric company. The purpose was to understand how different elements of the work environment—lighting, breaks, and hours spent at work—might affect productivity.

In one experiment, the researchers changed the lighting to see how it affected workers. They found that any change—brightening or dimming of the lights—resulted in increased productivity. Similarly, when the researchers cut out breaks and extended the workday, productivity also increased. Surprised by these results, the researchers finally concluded that the increased levels of productivity resulted from increased attention, rather than the changes made to their environment. The Hawthorne effect now describes improved performance due to one’s being observed.

Does This Theory Hold Up Today?

While we still use this term today to describe increased productivity levels due to our being observed, more recent studies have failed to reach the same conclusion. For example, in looking at the data from this original series of experiments, researchers from the University of Chicago found that other influences played a greater role in productivity levels than the original researchers reported. Furthermore, additional studies have concluded that increased feedback (rather than an increased attention) resulted in greater worker productivity.

That said, psychologists agree that the term “Hawthorne effect” is a generally fair explanation for why we might perform better in the presence of others. And I, for one, have observed this phenomenon in my own life—when I run at the gym, go to work, or even sing in the car with friends!