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Was there Really a Hawthorne Effect at the Hawthorne Plant? An Analysis of the Original Illumination Experiments

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Listed:
  • Steven D. Levitt
  • John A. List

Abstract

The "Hawthorne effect," a concept familiar to all students of social science, has had a profound influence both on the direction and design of research over the past 75 years. The Hawthorne effect is named after a landmark set of studies conducted at the Hawthorne plant in the 1920s. The first and most influential of these studies is known as the "Illumination Experiment." Both academics and popular writers commonly summarize the results as showing that every change in light, even those that made the room dimmer, had the effect of increasing productivity. The data from the illumination experiments, however, were never formally analyzed and were thought to have been destroyed. Our research has uncovered these data. We find that existing descriptions of supposedly remarkable data patterns prove to be entirely fictional. There are, however, hints of more subtle manifestations of a Hawthorne effect in the original data.

Suggested Citation

  • Steven D. Levitt & John A. List, 2009. "Was there Really a Hawthorne Effect at the Hawthorne Plant? An Analysis of the Original Illumination Experiments," NBER Working Papers 15016, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:15016
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Glenn W. Harrison & John A. List, 2004. "Field Experiments," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 42(4), pages 1009-1055, December.
    2. List John A., 2007. "Field Experiments: A Bridge between Lab and Naturally Occurring Data," The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, De Gruyter, vol. 5(2), pages 1-47, April.
    3. Stephen R G Jones, 1991. "Was There a Hawthorne Effect?," Department of Economics Working Papers 1991-01, McMaster University.
    4. Uri Gneezy & John A List, 2006. "Putting Behavioral Economics to Work: Testing for Gift Exchange in Labor Markets Using Field Experiments," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 74(5), pages 1365-1384, September.
    5. Anup Malani, 2006. "Identifying Placebo Effects with Data from Clinical Trials," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 114(2), pages 236-256, April.
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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • A1 - General Economics and Teaching - - General Economics
    • C91 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Design of Experiments - - - Laboratory, Individual Behavior
    • C92 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Design of Experiments - - - Laboratory, Group Behavior
    • C93 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Design of Experiments - - - Field Experiments
    • D03 - Microeconomics - - General - - - Behavioral Microeconomics: Underlying Principles
    • L22 - Industrial Organization - - Firm Objectives, Organization, and Behavior - - - Firm Organization and Market Structure

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