Analysis of the Trends
What Hawthorne and General Foods Say About Management Styles

Back to Research





The Origins of the Anglo-American Industrial Age Class System


Gantt & Williams

MacGregor and Theories X & Y


Analysis of the Trends

The Hawthorne Effect

General Foods







The Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect is named for Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works in Chicago.  From 1927 until 1932, a series of experiments were conducted.  In the true style of Scientific Management, the experimenters were seeking to make the workers more effective by varying the conditions under which they worked.  The results of the study, however, surprised everyone.

In one experiment, two teams of employees were charged with assembling telephone relays.  Both groups worked for one week in normal lighting.  Then, gradually, the lighting was increased in the experimental group.  As part of a standard experimental set up, the other group was left with normal lighting; this is called a control group, and it helps to demonstrate that the changes alone are the source of whatever effect is observed.

As the light was increased, the experimental group became more productive.  Oddly, the productivity of the control group increased as well.  After a while, the experiment was changed.  Light levels in the experimental group were decreased gradually, from 11 foot candles to 1.4 foot candles, until the workers began to complain that they had difficulty seeing the assemblies.45  The experimenters were surprised to see that productivity in the experimental group also increased as light levels were reduced.  Also, the rate of production in the control group matched the experimental group.  Clearly, light levels were not contributing to the productivity, but what was?

A second experiment was designed to measure the effect of scheduling on productivity.  (Remember that Taylor was proud of his “pioneering” work on rest periods.) Two women were selected for the study.  They were told to select four other women.  The women worked for a week assembling relays to establish a base number.  Working six eight-hour days with no rest periods, each woman was able to produce 2400 relays a week.

Then, over a period of months, various changes in scheduling were instituted:

  • They were then put on piece-work for eight weeks.

    Output went up

  • Two five-minute rest pauses, morning and afternoon, were introduced for a period of five weeks.

    Output went up once more.

  • The rest pauses were lengthened to ten minutes each.

    Output went up sharply.

  • Six five-minute pauses were introduced, and the girls complained that their work rhythm was broken by the frequent pauses.

    Output fell slightly

  • Return to the two rest pauses, the first with a hot meal supplied by the Company free of charge.

    Output went up.

  • The girls were dismissed at 4.30 p.m. instead of 5.00 p.m.

    Output went up.

  • They were dismissed at 4.00 p.m.

    Output remained the same.

  • Finally, all the improvements were taken away, and the girls went back to the physical conditions of the beginning of the experiment: work on Saturday, 48 hour week, no rest pauses, no piece work and no free meal. This state of affairs lasted for a period of 12 weeks.

    Output was the highest ever recorded averaging 3000 relays a week.46

    One can almost imagine the faces of the experimenters as they reviewed their data and pondered, “What the hell?”

    The real lesson of the Hawthorne experiment was that the conditions did not matter.  What mattered was that the experimenter was sitting in a room with the subjects and doing things that were designed to help them work better.  Because someone was trying to help them be more productive, the workers became more productive, regardless of what was actually being done to them.  The Hawthorne effect explains why some psychotic people test better on psychological tests when told to imagine that they are psychologically normal, and why, in medical experiments, some people improve when taking the placebo.

MBO, TQM, & ISO: Abbreviations That Take a WhileNext: General Foods' Topeka Plant


45.  Gillespie, Richard; Manufacturing Knowledge: A History of the Hawthorne Experiments; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1991; p. 44.

46.  “Motivation Theory;” http://www.accel-team.com/motivation/hawthorne_02.html; Accel Team.com; http://www.accel-team.com/; 2000; (5 Dec 00).