Experience The Hawthorne Effect

October 31, 2022
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Several of my friends hate flossing their teeth. They go months without flossing, which I think is pretty gross. But then an odd thing happens. About a week before their dental appointment, these same friends will start flossing. By the time they reach their appointment, they have unusually clean gums (though dentists can see through this fairly well, I’m told). On a different tone, some family members have a condition called White Coat Syndrome. When they go to the doctor’s office, their nervousness causes a spike in blood pressure or heart rate, giving deceptively high readings. What’s going on? Can psychological effects like these be used to our advantage?


The Hawthorne Effect is a term used to describe a very beneficial effect seen in clinical trials. This is named after a productivity study in Hawthorne Works, a Western Electric factory in the 1920s and 30s. The study was attempting to discover a link between the amount of light and productivity of workers. When increasing the amount of light, productivity increased. Strangely, when lowering the amount of light, productivity also increased! Researchers attributed the increase in productivity to the workers simply being observed. In research, we tend to see increased positive results for patients simply because we are observing them in a study.


Hawthorne Works


Let’s analyze a 2014 sleep study. Researchers measured 195 patients’ amount and quality of sleep at night. 81 days later, before any medical intervention, researchers measured the patients again. They found that patients slept an average of 30 minutes longer per night and had an increased quality of sleep. This was before any medication or intervention! The change was attributed to the Hawthorne Effect.

Patients at ENCORE Research Group comment on the excellent quality of care they receive during clinical trials. Instead of seeing a doctor for a few minutes once a year, patients see doctors and medical staff for much longer and are encouraged or required to call and report changes in health. Quality of care is increased and makes for a pleasant and healthful patient experience. Patients in clinical trials may also experience more observation time from medical professionals due to the attention to detail that clinical trials require for data integrity in studies.

Finally, patients are found to have better adherence to medication requirements while undergoing clinical trials. The increased emphasis on accuracy and adherence results in better patient outcomes, even when they are part of a placebo or standard-of-care group.

In clinical trials, we see these benefits and must account for them. Randomization of patients helps spread the effect. Everyone sees increased baseline results on average; we are interested to find out if those receiving investigational treatment do even better. Join a clinical trial today and experience the Hawthorne Effect for yourself… and floss your teeth!

Written by Benton Lowey-Ball, BS Behavioral Neuroscience



Sources:

Benedetti, F., Carlino, E., & Piedimonte, A. (2016). Increasing uncertainty in CNS clinical trials: the role of placebo, nocebo, and Hawthorne effects. Lancet Neurol, 15, 736-47. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1474-4422(16)00066-1

Cizza, G., Piaggi, P., Rother, K. I., Csako, G., & Sleep Extension Study Group. (2014). Hawthorne effect with transient behavioral and biochemical changes in a randomized controlled sleep extension trial of chronically short-sleeping obese adults: implications for the design and interpretation of clinical studies. PLoS One, 9(8), e104176. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0104176

ENCORE Research Group. (2020, October 14). Hawthorne effect.[Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1DH7jwqFlyw

Mayo, E. (1993). The human problems of an industrial civilization. The Macmillan Company. 

McCarney, R., Warner, J., Iliffe, S., Van Haselen, R., Griffin, M., & Fisher, P. (2007). The Hawthorne Effect: a randomised, controlled trial. BMC medical research methodology, 7(1), 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2288-7-30

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