Hawthorne Effect

School meals

School meals (Photo credit: Coventry City Council)

I was listening last week to the “More or Less” podcast with Tim Harford, which by the way is one of my favourite Radio 4 programmes and I highly recommend it. In the programme they were discussing the proposal of Mr Nick Clegg, the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister, to offer free school lunches to all pupils at infant schools. The proposal follows from a pilot study  that seemed to suggest that giving free meals to school children was good for their academic performance.

As usual, not all is what it seems and the programme goes on to discuss this. I’m afraid is the old adage of correlation and causation… In any case, the commentators in the programme made a reference to the Hawthorne effect, and although Tim Harford mentioned something about this I ended up with the curiosity to find out more about it. It turns out that the Hawthorne effect is at work when subjects modify and change their behaviour in response to the fact that they know they are being studied. You might think that this is similar to the quantum mechanical observer affecting the system they observe, except that in this case the system is patently aware of the influence of the observation. I would leave it at that…

The effect is named after Western Electric’s  Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Il somewhere close to Chicago. Between 1924 and 1932 Elton Mayo carried out some productivity trials that have become some of the most well-know in social science, as the study is often held as a demonstration that people respond to change when they know you they are being observed or studied. So, who knows, perhaps the pupils, parents and teachers did indeed change their behaviour while the study was taking place… Oh well…

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