The Hawthorne Effect & Wearable Technology

Bosses have always wanted to know how to get the most out of their workers.

Back in 1924, the big cheeses at the Western Electric Company wanted to find out how the level of lighting, among other things, affected productivity at their Hawthorne Works factory near Chicago. So they gradually reduced the illumination in one part of the factory.

Rather to their surprise, productivity rose as lighting levels fell, even when the workers could hardly see. But even more unexpectedly, it also rose where the lighting was unchanged.

The company’s analyst eventually concluded that the gains were actually caused by the added attention the workers had received from bosses. This “Hawthorne effect” is often invoked when a workplace intervention appears to achieve its goals: was it the action or the scrutiny that made the difference?

That question is taking on a whole new dimension with the advent of wearable technology designed to monitor and motivate workers – combining both action and scrutiny.

The ethics of this are complex; so are the practicalities. Firms will have to be very careful about how they use it. Otherwise, they may end up doing little more than turning the lights up and down.


Rutkin, A. (2014) Off The Clock, On The Record. New Scientist. October 18 – 24, 2014, pp.22-23.


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