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

  • Steven D. Levitt
  • John A. List

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.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 15016.

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Date of creation: May 2009
Date of revision:
Publication status: published as Steven D. Levitt & John A. List, 2011. "Was There Really a Hawthorne Effect at the Hawthorne Plant? An Analysis of the Original Illumination Experiments," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Association, vol. 3(1), pages 224-38, January.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:15016
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  1. John List & Uri Gneezy, 2006. "Putting behavioral economics to work: Testing for gift exchange in labor markets using field experiments," Natural Field Experiments 00259, The Field Experiments Website.
  2. John List, 2006. "Field experiments: A bridge between lab and naturally occurring data," Artefactual Field Experiments 00083, The Field Experiments Website.
  3. A. Meltzer & Peter Ordeshook & Thomas Romer, 1982. "Introduction," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 39(1), pages 1-3, January.
  4. Stephen R G Jones, 1991. "Was There a Hawthorne Effect?," Department of Economics Working Papers 1991-01, McMaster University.
  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.
  6. Glenn Harrison & John List, 2004. "Field experiments," Artefactual Field Experiments 00058, The Field Experiments Website.
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