The Hawthorne Effect Revisited

2 June 2009 at 8:27 am 9 comments

| Peter Klein |

The ever-resourceful Steve Levitt, working with John List, uncovers the original data from the Hawthorne experiments — data long thought to have been lost or destroyed — and finds there actually wasn’t much of a Hawthorne effect:

Our analysis of the newly found data reveals little evidence to support the existence of a Hawthorne effect as commonly described; i.e., there is no systematic evidence that productivity jumped whenever changes in lighting occurred. On the other hand, we do uncover some weak evidence consistent with more subtle manifestations of Hawthorne effects in the data. In particular, output tends to be higher when experimental manipulations are ongoing relative to when there is no experimentation. Also consistent with a Hawthorne effect is that productivity is more responsive to experimenter manipulations of light than naturally-occurring fluctuations. . . . We conclude that the evidence for a Hawthorne effect in the studies that gave the phenomenon its name is far more subtle than has been previously acknowledged.

The short paper, “Was there Really a Hawthorne Effect at the Hawthorne Plant? An Analysis of the Original Illumination Experiments,” is available from NBER. I couldn’t find an ungated copy but the search led me to a large secondary literature, much of it by organizational and industrial psychologists, also questioning the original findings, though apparently without use of the primary data.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Management Theory, Myths and Realities.

And Meet the New Bud Fox Shop Class as Soulcraft

9 Comments Add your own

  • […] some information about yourself to some on-line company). However, Peter Klein of the blog “Organizations and Markets” has reprinted to following snippet: The “Hawthorne effect,” a concept familiar […]

  • 2. Hawthorne debunked? « PublicOrgTheory  |  2 June 2009 at 11:38 am

    […] Peter Klein adds more ammo to the argument.  Several friends and colleagues claim to have always thought Hawthorne suspect.  […]

  • 3. Rafe  |  2 June 2009 at 7:14 pm

    An Australian psycholgist named Alex Carey (deceased) wrote a couple of papers (probably in the 1970s) based on the Hawthorn data (can’t recall the source) and concluded that contrary to received opinion, productivity was more related to pay than anything else. Sadly he was a strong socialist and he concluded that the results were fudged as a capitalists plot to stop the workers from asking for more money.

    Bring back piece rates.

    Will attempt to locate the papers and check.

  • 4. Rafe  |  2 June 2009 at 7:58 pm

    A google on Carey+ Hawthorne effect turns up a lot of references that mention Carey and this one gives the flavour of his critique.,M1

    See page 70ff of The Rise and Fall of Social Psycholgy by Augustine Brannigan.

  • 5. Rafe  |  2 June 2009 at 11:43 pm

    Carey has a critique of the official interpretation of the Hawthorn studies in a chapter of this book “Taking the Risk out of Democracy: Propaganda in the US and Australia”, by Alex Carey, Andrew Lohrey; University of New South Wales, 1995. 214 pgs.

    The book is an anti-capitalist rant but I think his take on Hawthorn makes sense. We were friends in the NSW Humanist Society and he was very upset when I moved to the dark side.

    The book is on line in Questia.

    Unlike Google books the text is entire and it can be cut and pasted.

    Discussion and conclusions
    The examination undertaken here by no means exhausts the gross error and the incompetence in the understanding and use of the scientific method which permeate the Hawthorne studies from beginning to end. Three further studies were conducted: the Bank Wiring Observation Room Study; the Interviewing Program; and the Counselling Program. These studies cannot be discussed here, but I believe them to be nearly as worthless scientifically as the studies which have been discussed. 21 This should not be surprising, for they arose out of ‘evidence’ found and conclusions reached in the earlier studies and were guided by and interpreted in the light of the strongest preconceptions based on the conclusions of those earlier studies.

    There are major deficiencies in Stages I, II and III which have hardly been touched on: (1) There was no attempt to establish sample groups representative of any larger population than the groups themselves. Therefore no generalization is legitimate. (2) There was no attempt to employ control data from the output records of the girls who were not put under special experimental conditions. (3) Even if both of these points had been met, the experiments would still have been of only minor scientific value since a group of five subjects is too small to yield statistically reliable results. Waiving all these points, it is clear that the objective evidence obtained from Stages I, II and III does not support any of the conclusions derived by the Hawthorne investigators.

    The results of these studies, far from supporting the various components of the ‘human relations approach’, are surprisingly consistent with a rather old-world view about the value of monetary incentives, driving leadership, and discipline. It is only by massive and relentless reinterpretation that the evidence is made to yield contrary conclusions. To make these points is not to claim that the Hawthorne studies can provide serious support for any such oldworld view. The limitations of the Hawthorne studies clearly render them incapable of yielding any serious support for any sort of generalization whatever.

    If the assessment of the Hawthorne studies offered here is cogent, it raises some questions of importance for university teachers, especially for teachers concerned with courses on industrial organization and management. How is it that nearly all authors of textbooks who have drawn material from the Hawthorne studies have failed to recognize the vast discrepancy between evidence and conclusions in those studies? How have they frequently misdescribed the actual observations and occurrences in a way that brings the evidence into line with the conclusions? Exploration of these questions would provide salutary insight into aspects of the sociology of social scientists.

  • 6. robin gleaves  |  3 June 2009 at 6:15 am

    But if there’s no Hawthorne Effect does this mean that management consultants actually work!?!

  • 7. Charles D.Wrege-Cornell University  |  11 June 2009 at 12:29 am

    I regret to say that Steve Levitt and John List have not made an original discovery by locating the supposed “Lost” reports of the illumination tests at Hawthorne. they merely found the few microfilm copies that Dr. Richard Franke had the foresight to have made in l977. I discovered them in l957, still held by the original investigator Charles E.Snow who had copies of the reports he had turned over to Hawthorne during the original tests. I described this in my book: Facts and Fallacies of Hawthorne (Garland Publishing, l986). the failure of Garland to promote this book has resulted in people still thinking the records were lost. The original copies at Hawthorne were destroyed on December 19, 1928, All of these records, along with correspondence with Mr. Snow ( before his early death on November 11, l962,) are at the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Martin Catherwood Library , Cornell University as Collection 5167.

    Steve Levitt and John list have not made any real discoveries since they have only used the production of the hand coil winders in Coil Winding department 6325. The more interesting records are those of relay assembly Department 6329, because they reveal that the average hourly output of “E” type relays durimng the illumination tests of 1924-1925 and 1926 (which was a “psychological test”) were 54 to 60 relays per hour, the actual level of output per hour in the Relay assemblt test Room BEFORE the “conversuion factors” used in the test room increased the output figures. the derivation of these “conversion factors” is questionable and the method of conversion was never published in Management and the Worker so that the readers could see how the output figures were obbtained.

    Despite the statements by Levitt and list, the original output charts in Relay Assembkly Department 6329 emonstrate increases in output, but they are not related to the experimental illumination changes. These increases in output were related to a number of factors, some of which were recorded daily in his personal LOG . These included the fact that the orders from the Associated Telephone Companies for relays declined as a result of the 1923-1924 recession and with the resulting layoffs the 23 operators in the illumination tests assembled fewer types of relays and were able to increase their daily output. Another factor was the fact that Western Electric had lost $28,800,00 dollars in manufacturing and installing the dial mechanical switching system for l;ocal telephone calls for the Associated Telephone Companies so in l924, BEFORE, the illumination tests improvements were made in the manufacturing methods (especially in Relay Assembly Department 6329) and mr. snow noted that output had increased in the department in October and november before the illumination tests were initiated on Novbember 28, 1924.

    The output charts do show decreases in output per hour on Saturdays and Mondays. They are not, however, related to changes in the level of artificial or natural illumination. Saturdays were days when small orders of infrequently ordered relays were assembled. On Mondays, the Manufacturing Requisitions were assigned along with the preparation of the individual piece rate forms for the operators he time requitred to do this preparation by the Instructors delayed the initiation of actual work for several minutes, thus the decrease in output.
    If we follow French’s original description of the “Hawthorne Effect” in l950, where the operators were given social status through their interactiion with the investigator who had status, then the “Haswthorn Effect” could have happened. Mr, snow had to make eight reading per hour in each department of the illumnination at the bench level. Along with this he jhad to compare the output with changes in the total level of illumination five times a day: 6:30 A.m., 9:30 A.M., 2 P.M., 3 P.M., and 5 P.M. the total, intensity of illumnination consisted of artificial and natural illumination since the electrical industry had sponsored the tests in an effort to get companies to utilize artificial illumnination in conjunction with natural illumination to sell large size lamps, new fixtures and the electric companies to sell more power.

    To see if the changes in total illumination at the five times indicated might reflect the effect of fatigue the outputof the opetrators had to be determined. In hand coil winding this was simple as the operators were paid straight puiece rates based on the number of coils completed, in the inspection department a straight dayork rate was involved so there was no problem, there as the number of parts they were weighed and their output determined by weight ( a prevalent system at Hawthorne).
    the problem came with the group incentive used in relay assembly department 6329, where the the operators were paid on the basis of the individual pieces assembled in a specific type of relay. Because of this situation and since Western Electric assembled over 3,000 differebt types of relays, the original agreement with the Committee on Industrial Lighting of the National Research Council was to record output on the basis of incentive earnings per hour. This method was suitable forlong-range data on outrput levels, it did not prove prasctical in orderto determine the output within the short time periods of the system of “Five Output Checks Per Day” Snow had to adopt. To facilitate these records the original group of 16 operators who assembled “E” type relays was divided into two groups of 8 operators each along with additional instructors with one instructor for 8 operators (a similar method was used in the relay assembly test Room in l927, but this was necessitated by the installation of a rebuilt printing telegraph reperfporator [originally built by the Morkrum Company of Chicago for Western Electric] which used 5 channel telegraphic tape which meant thatt the Test Room could only have five operators–thus a small group).
    To obtain and calculate the hourly incentive output for the 8 operators in each grouprequired interaction with Snow as the data had to be gathered and calculated (for instance) for the one hour between 7:30 A.M. and 8:30 A.M. and then at 9:30 A.M. for the petiod since 8:30 A.M.


  • 8. Christopher Taylor  |  5 January 2010 at 8:55 pm

    One word: replication.

  • 9. Finn Bjerke Psykolog  |  6 November 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Goodbye Hawthorne effect, Hello new experiments ?

    It must be possible to make new empirical studies, examining the original thesis by Mr. Majo.

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