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Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne effect — an increase in worker productivity produced by the psychological stimulus of being singled out and made to feel important.

Individual behaviors may be altered by the study itself, rather than the effects the study is researching was demonstrated in a research project (1927 - 1932) of the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company in Cicero, Illinois. This series of research, first led by Harvard Business School professor Elton Mayo along with associates F. J. Roethlisberger and William J. Dickson started out by examining the physical and environmental influences of the workplace (e.g. brightness of lights, humidity) and later, moved into the psychological aspects (e.g. breaks, group pressure, working hours, managerial leadership). The ideas that this team developed about the social dynamics of groups in the work setting had lasting influence the collection of data, labor-management relations, and informal interaction among factory employees.

The major finding of the study was that almost regardless of the experimental manipulation employed, the production of the workers seemed to improve. One reasonable conclusion is that the workers were pleased to receive attention from the researchers who expressed an interest in them. The study was only expected to last one year, but because the researchers were set back each time they tried to relate the manipulated physical conditions to the worker's efficiency, the project extended out to five years.

Four general conclusions were drawn from the Hawthorne studies:

For decades, the Hawthorne studies provided the rationale for human relations within the organization. Then two researchers (Franke, Kaul, 1978) used a new procedure called time-series analyses. Using the original variables and including in the Great Depression and the instance of a managerial discipline in which two insubordinate and mediocre workers were replaced by two different productive workers, with one who took the role of straw boss (see note below); they discovered that production was most affected by the replacement of the two workers due to their greater productivity and the affect of the disciplinary action on the other workers. The occurrence of the Depression also encouraged job productivity, perhaps through the increased importance of jobs and the fear of losing them. Rest periods and a group incentive plan also had a somewhat positive smaller effect on productivity. These variables accounted for almost all the variation in productivity during the experimental period. Early social sciences may have readily to embrace the original Hawthorne interpretations since it was looking for theories or work motivation that were more humane and democratic.

Along with Frederick Taylor's work, this study gave rise to the field known as “Industrial Psychology” as social group influences and interpersonal factors must also be considered when performing efficiency research such as time and motion studies.


Hay is dried grass, sometimes with a little alfalfa thrown in, used as feed for horses and cattle. Straw, on the other hand, is the stalks of wheat or other grains left over after harvesting the good parts, and is used primarily for livestock bedding. Since straw is a by-product of the real business of a farm, “straw boss” is not the main boss of any job, but rather an assistant or subordinate boss, usually on the level of the foreman of a work crew.  It is now a metaphor for any low-level supervisor. And since straw bosses rarely wield any real power aside from the ability to make those under them miserable, straw boss today is often a synonym for a petty and vindictive superior.


Franke, R. H. & Kaul, J. D. (1978). The Hawthorne experiments: First statistical interpretation. American Sociological Review, 1978, 43, 623-643.

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