Null Effect

Article excerpt

IN 1924 THE NATIONAL RESEARCH Council ran a now famous experiment at Western Electric's Hawthorne plant in Cicero, Illinois. The researchers asked a simple question: Does better lighting make workers more productive? They were surprised by what they found. Productivity improved regardless of whether the lights were low or high. The unexpected results gave rise to one of the key insights of modern psychology, later named the Hawthorne effect: Researchers can change the behavior of their subjects merely by studying them. More broadly, the mere fact of paying attention to people makes them more productive. The Hawthorne study helped usher in a whole field of research, called industrial psychology; influenced the shape of ideas about human relations and management; and shaped the fundamentals of experimental design.

Since the 1970s, scholars have returned to the data from follow-up experiments done at the Hawthorne plant and questioned the original findings, but the data from the initial studies, conducted in 1924 and 1925, were thought to have been lost. University of Chicago economists Steven D. Levitt and John A. List were able to locate them in the libraries of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and Harvard Business School, and apply modern statistical techniques to the nearly century-old data. …