The Hawthorne Effect and You

We all do it. When we know we’re being watched, we’re on our best behavior. We often tend to perform better and we usually tend to make better choices, too. Then, when we think the focus is off of us, we relax and sometimes make different choices.

This effect, in which we act “better” when we believe we’re being observed by others, is called the Hawthorne effect, and it’s surprisingly powerful.

It’s easy to see examples of this almost every day in our lives. If we’re out with people we don’t know well and are trying to impress, we’re going to focus intensely on putting our best foot forward. We’ll dress well, attempt to be good conversationalists, and try hard to put positive character traits on display. On the other hand, when we’re home alone watching television, we’ll often put on old raggy comfortable clothes and curl up on the couch without combing our hair or anything like that.

Let’s carry that forward a bit. Let’s say we’re at a store with a friend and that friend is watching us as we make up our mind about whether or not to make a purchase. Simply by observing, that friend has an effect on whether we buy.

I see it even in my own life. If my financially conservative friend John is watching, I’ll tend to not buy the item and walk away. On the other hand, if one of my other heavy-spending friends is watching, I’ll lean more towards buying the item. The observer doesn’t have to actively participate at all in my purchase – simply by being there, they impact my choice.

In short, I tend to lean towards a “best behavior” in the eyes of whoever is observing me. That “best behavior,” though, changes based on who is doing the observing.

Some of you may scoff at this at first glance, but imagine yourself in situations in your life and how your actions and choices in those situations change depending on who is there and who isn’t.

For me, the intriguing part of the Hawthorne effect is how it can reinforce positive behaviors in your life. Just choose to surround yourself with people who reinforce the behaviors you want to exhibit.

So, for example, if I’m going to go do some comparison shopping for Christmas gifts with a friend, I’m far better off choosing to go with John than with other people. Why? John’s mere presence encourages me to dig for values in the gifts that I buy and not just go for the splashy gift, while others, by their mere presence, will encourage me to just go for the “awesome” gift without strong planning or thought.

If I’m trying to break a habit of drinking socially, I’m better off spending social time with friends that don’t drink. Again, just by their powers of observation, I’m more likely to make the appropriate choice. Of course, the reverse is true – if I enjoy drinking socially, I should choosse friends who also enjoy it.

If I want to go the extra mile at work and look like a winner, I should try to get into group projects with people who are really productive – the “stars” of the company – instead of people who just sit around and complain. On the other hand, if I’m just interested in passing the time at work, I should seek out those who are doing the bare minimum.

What kind of person do you want to be? It’s much easier to find the path to where you want to go if the people around you are on that same path. Just by their presence, you’ll innately want to please them with your actions, so you’ll make choices with them that lead you towards your own personal goals.

The Hawthorne effect really works. More and more, I gravitate towards friends and work associates that are the kind of people that I want to be.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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