Defying The Hawthorne Effect

One of the earliest findings in social science research from the early 1900s came to be known as Hawthorne Effect. First observed in data from the Hawthorne Works manufacturing plant of the Western Electric Company, the Hawthorne Effect suggests that subjects who are aware they’re in an experiment modify their behavior from what it would have been without their knowledge.

The original experiment was devised to determine if there was a relationship between productivity and work environments. Researchers tested for things like lighting, the timing of breaks and the length of the work day, and what effects they had on productivity. What they found was that almost any change to the experimental conditions increased productivity.

Psychologist Elton Mayo conducted the study from 1928 to 1932, and it was first described in the 1950s by researcher Henry A. Landsberger during his analysis of the study. It has been the basis for further research ever since, some of which pointed out the flaws in Mayo’s methodology, namely not controlling for other variables, but the findings were nonetheless tangible. Later research sought to refine the original study’s methods and findings.

The Cliff’s Notes version of the Hawthorne Effect is that people change their behavior when they know they’re being watched.

Whether you knew it or not, we see it at work in almost every aspect of modern life. “Government in the sunshine” laws are a perfect example. In California, the Brown Act was enacted over concern that local elected officials were holding meetings and making decisions without the oversight of the electorate. Like politicians, children and dogs also behave better when supervised.

In modern life, we often see that people don’t like being recorded on video because it limits their freedom to act like heathens. I also see similar differences in behavior when I interview people. I’ll be asking them questions and they’ll be saying all kinds of interesting and insightful things and delivering wonderfully quotable material, to the point that I have to pull out my digital recorder, and at that very moment, how they talk to me changes. They become more stilted, measured and self-aware.

Videographers will tell you the same thing. The moment they turn the camera on someone, he or she changes. As you read this, you’re probably nodding your head and thinking of the last time you had a camera turned on you. It changes you, if only slightly, and only for the duration of the filming.

However, there is at least one place I think the Hawthorne Effect does not apply and, as you might imagine, it is out on track, whether we’re racing, in Time Trial or HPDE. How so? Most of us have cameras in our cars. Mine starts without me having to do anything. If the car is moving, the camera is running.

My hypothesis is that those running cameras don’t alter our behavior at all while we’re out on track because we’re too busy to be conscious of them. They’re on the whole time, and we’re out there doing what we do, with no concern for who or whether someone is watching. Taken a step further, the presence of an instructor or a coach in our car — a live person — also doesn’t change what we’re doing. At least, I don’t think it does, but I have no empirical proof. Call it a hunch.

Naturally, a researcher’s first question is: why? If you’ve read this far, I’ll venture a guess or two in an attempt to bring this column full circle.

I’ve read in a few different places that the human mind can recognize and juggle five things at once. Any more than that, and things can get sideways — racing pun intended. Any less and our attention is prone to wander. That’s why there are five lines on a musical staff. Any more than that, it would be more difficult to determine which note is which. Sight reading sheet music would be almost impossible with just that one extra line.

In a racecar, our minds are engaged at all times with at least five things: pedals, steering, gear, car control, and track position. It’s far more likely that we are engaged with 20 disparate things taken five at a time depending on where we are on track, but the point is that each of those five items is far more important, relevant and top of mind than the camera running behind us — and we are free to do what the moment requires.

I can think of one other instance in modern life wherein the act of being recorded didn’t seem to affect behavior, but that’s not a topic for which people look to Speed News. There are likely more, but I can’t think of any at the moment.

The overlaps between academic theory and motorsports are plenty, and it’s a well deep enough to spend a career studying. I’ve already got a career, but if sure would be fun to see someone stand on the shoulders of those who came before and study the Hawthorne Effect’s effects in motorsports.


Join the Discussion