By Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell
While each year thousands of studies are completed in psychology and education, there are a handful that over the years have had a lasting impact on education and learning.
In a series of Extra Credit articles, I have been highlighting several seminal studies that have had a profound impact on teaching and learning.
The seventh article in this series explores how human beings readily change their behavior simply because they know they are being observed.
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How can behavior be changed?
This question is among the most pervasive and ever-present in the history of psychology.
For example, on the one hand, clinical psychologists describe how challenging and time-intensive it can be to change ingrained maladaptive behaviors. On the other hand, some studies show how easy it is to change seemingly established behavior patterns.
The Study – The Hawthorne Effect
In 1955 Henry Landsberger analyzed data from experiments conducted between 1924 and 1932 by Elton Mayo at the Hawthorne Works near Chicago. The Hawthorne Works was a large factory complex owned by the Western Electric Company. The goal of the company was to explore adjustments to the workers’ environment that might enhance productivity. Lighting in the plant was one of the many variables explored.
In the initial experiments, Elton Mayo adjusted the luminosity of the lighting and concluded that brighter lights enhanced productivity. Simple, right?
The company explored other “opportunities” to enhance productivity, including decreasing the luminosity of the lighting.
Hmm? Indeed, the workers’ level of efficiency increased when anything was changed. Landsberger, in his analysis of the Hawthorne data, concluded that productivity increased because the workers felt good about the attention they received.
Now known to every Psychology 101 student, the Hawthorne Effect is an omnipresent bias that must be accounted for in the design of social science experiments that involve subjects knowing that they are being observed. For example, countless education studies have proclaimed a programmatic intervention as successful, when in fact, it was less about the program and more about the special attention that group of students was receiving.
The Hawthorne Effect is an interesting phenomenon because a noteworthy result does not seem to depend on a huge impetus. It does not take much to be impactful, at least in the short term … and this is an important point to note. Follow-up studies demonstrate that superficial changes (like changing the lighting in a factory) do not have lasting impacts. To see longer-lasting impacts on behavior the interactions between subject and observer must ultimately develop deeper meaning.
Examples from Life and Business
Many believe that having a workout partner improves the workout experience. With a partner, there might be the added benefits of friendly competition, joint accountability, and enjoying each other’s company. It seems to me the Hawthorne Effect might play a role, as well. As with the workers at the
Hawthorne factory your productivity might increase because of the positive attention you receive by the mere presence of your workout partner.
In the corporate world, many leadership gurus have written about the importance of visibility. That is, the relatively simple act of leaders being seen on a regular basis by their employees. When leaders are regularly visible all kinds of meaning is implied.
You can say the same thing about spending time with your children. Much of the importance rests in the act of just being there … and just being there impacts behavior.
Implications for Education
At Currey Ingram, the Hawthorne Effect helps explain why our approach to educating students with learning differences works. We talk about our individualized approach and how every student is the center of their own educational experience. Implicit in our approach is that positive and meaningful
attention are systematically shone on students. Students know they are being “observed”… for their benefit. The continuous observation of students, across teachers and programs, leads to feedback that is ongoing, thoughtful, broad and deep. Which, in turn, adds meaning to the experiences.
From factories, to schools, to families, the impact of people simply being present for other people is subtle but significant. Words do not have to be spoken, nor directives have to be given, for change to occur. But for a change in behavior to last, context and substance must replace the novelty of the change.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is head of school at Currey Ingram Academy.