Are the ‘Hawthorne Studies’ still relevant today?

In the second of a series of academic posts, Scott Newby looks as whether the Hawthorne studies of the 1920s and 30s are still relevant today.

Studying Psychology was becoming increasingly popular and by the 1920’s there was insufficient academic roles available for everyone qualified in this discipline. Therefore, increasing numbers of trained psychologists would take up employed positions in industrial organisations. This involved applying psychological practices and mental testing to better inform employers in terms of employee selection, training & performance.

A well-known example is the studies that took place at the Western Electric Hawthorne Plant between 1924 and 1932. These studies in relation to worker productivity became known as the ‘Hawthorne Studies’.

Western Electric supplied telephone equipment to the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, a booming industry in the 1920’s, with Western Electric’s main factory in Hawthorne, Chicago, employing circa 35,000 people (Gale, 2004).

This is where many experiments took place over an 8-year period. Starting in 1924, the original study tested the theory that improved lighting increased worker productivity. Results are sparse, but anecdotal evidence suggests that changes made to lighting, whether deemed favourable or not, resulted in increased productivity.

The longest running experiment of the ‘Hawthorne Studies’ was the relay assembly test, which ran from 1927 to 1931, led by industrial engineer, George Pennock. This study took place in a test room environment, where six experienced female workers carried out their tasks under direct observation. Changes were made to working arrangements with the initial aims of the study to determine the best technical and social arrangements for maximum production (Mannevuo, 2018).

Irrespective of the changes made in working conditions, output rose and then maintained these increased levels of production. Later, this was coined the ‘Hawthorne Effect’ – a theory that any innovation or change can produce positive results, albeit perhaps temporarily (Reber et al., 2009). This term also refers to the belief that people behave differently when being observed - something that today’s researchers must consider when studying human behaviour.

These increased levels of production piqued the interest of Western Electric, and subsequently they hired academic consultants, including Harvard’s Elton Mayo in 1928. By February 1929, Western Electric fully committed to studying its workers, with these studies continuing until the Wall Street Crash in 1932.

Some of the conclusions from these studies found that productivity was likely to improve when management paid greater attention to their workers, provided support, and involved workers in the workplace practice (Benjamin, 2007).

The influence of the ‘Hawthorne Studies’ cannot be underestimated, particularly in academia and business. Pick up any management textbook, and chances are you will see reference to the ‘Hawthorne Studies’. Not to mention, HR departments and organisations, globally, seeking the holy grail of colleague satisfaction AND increased profitability.

This doesn’t mean there is not opposition. Gale (2004) argues that behavioural sciences have progressed beyond what we learnt from the ‘Hawthorne Studies’, namely that it “showed that to change one element is to change the situation and that human behaviour…is not a spectator sport.”

This advancement in knowledge contributes to the acceptance that influencing workplace performance is more complex than these studies proposed. Sixteen years post Gale’s paper, a final question to ponder…

‘Is human behaviour no longer a spectator sport, or is it just monitored differently? In current times, shaped by COVID-19, with more people working remotely, has technology provided organisations the capability to still ‘spectate’, just more subtly, from afar?

Reference List

Benjamin, Jr., L. T. (2007). A Brief History of Modern Psychology (1st ed.).Blackwell Publishing.

Gale, E.A.M. (2004). The Hawthorne studies — a fable for our times? QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, 97(7), 439–449.

Mannevuo, M. (2018). The riddle of adaptation: Revisiting the Hawthorne studies. The Sociological Review, 66(6), 1242–1257.

Reber, A. S. & Allen, R. & Reber, E. S. (2009). Penguin Dictionary of Psychology (4th ed.). Penguin.

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