Updated on 11.11.09

The Hawthorne Effect and You

Trent Hamm

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.

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  1. Daniel says:

    While this is definitely true and I am more likely to splurge when with certain friends, I don’t think we should choose our friends based on how likely we are to spend money when we are with them.

    There’s a reason we are friends with them, and if we are concerned that we will spend too much money we they are around, we need to man up and get smarter. Dumping certain friends because we have some differences is not the answer.

  2. brad says:

    dont think this counts as following up with john about his campground.

  3. Little House says:

    Though I wouldn’t use this as the ultimate decision to selecting which friends to hang out with, it does seem like a good way to decide who to go shopping with. I think Trent is right, if you want to stick to a budget, go with the friend who is more frugal and will make you think twice before purchasing an item. Then, you can hang out with your friends who spend more carelessly at other times!

  4. Sierra says:

    This is largely good advice. The one big exception I see is when the people watching expect or want you to do something that’s not in line with what you want. This comes up especially with parenting for me: if I’m in a supermarket and my kids act out, I’m much more likely to try to “perform” what I think the bystanders think I should do, instead of acting from a centered place knowing my kid.

  5. CorithMalin says:

    This is one of the better and more encouraging posts in a while, Trent. The others have been great also, but I had a smirk on my face when you encouraged me to ask myself whom I want to be.

  6. I’ve always gravitated towards people I look up to in some way. For me, my husband is the biggest person like this — there are many things about him that I look up to and admire, and I do my best to emulate him. (It wasn’t too long before I started using phrases he does a lot, which was and still is kinda cute to him.)

    When it comes to shopping, I’m normally the one observing. I really don’t go shopping with people much, and I would hardly feel the need to buy anything to impress anyone. I’m being serious here, too. Now, if I were out *looking* for something specific, I’d ask for opinions…. But still, it’s my call and I would never do it just to impress someone. (Who, if they’re my friend, shouldn’t need impressing anyhow.)

    If I really feel the need to justify my spending, or lack of, to anyone, I’d only share my greater goals with them. I’d be more impressed by someone who told me, “Well, I like the more expensive widget, but I’m going to go with the cheaper one instead. There isn’t much of a difference in how they function, but the money I save will help me get closer to that vacation I was planning.” Maybe “impress” wouldn’t be as good of a word so much as “increased respect” in this regard.

  7. chacha1 says:

    It’s been a good while since I gave a damn about how a casual observer might judge a purchase of mine, but, if I’m honest, I’ll admit that I do notice their reactions to what they observe me buying. Noticing and caring are distinct, though.

    I have a good friend whom I love dearly, but I hardly dare go shopping with her because she constantly urges me to try things on and buy things, basically because she wants to see me in them! And she never buys anything for herself!

    Where the “Hawthorne effect” (where does the name come from, anyway? have to look that up) really works for me is that, in my consciousness of being observed, I become more mindful of little habits, like fiddling with my hair or sitting at an angle in my desk chair, that are either probably annoying for others, or bad for me.

    As a dancer, I work hard to present myself in such a way that people are not surprised to learn that I dance … if you know what I mean!

  8. I stopped being influenced by peer pressure in middle school. Hawthorne Effect…hmmm…guess I’ve never really thought too much about it, really. I tend to blaze my own trail and am largely unconcerned with how people might interpret my character from afar.

    Of course, I also tend not to lounge around the house in sweats either. I’m proud of the fact that I am comfortable in my own skin and am not insecure about my decisions in life.

    Is it true that different people bring out different sides of a person’s character? Sure, I suppose it is true but is it because that person influences you or compliments that specific nature of your personality? Some people are naturally optimistic & bring out that side of a person or there are those who have a consistently negative attitude and bring out the pessimist in a person.

    I try to hold myself to a consistent standard at all times, regardless of whom is in my company or might be watching. I tend to be my own harshest critic.

    Its still an interesting concept, and maybe its influence may not be so pronounced in my own life though it may not be so pervasive or obvious as the examples you noted.

  9. I think this brings home the point that you should surround yourself with positive, supportive people, and eliminate the unsupportive, not-so-psitive ones.

    Where did I read that before????

  10. deRuiter says:

    Given the opportunity it’s best to associate with people who have desireable characteristics or are better than one is. There’s a tendency to take on the coloration of companions. This explains why people who have “hard luck” and are generally unsuccessful in life tend to never improve their lot, they associate with their unsuccessful peers. “If you lie down with the dogs, you get up with fleas.” You learn from those around you, you tend to absorbe their culture, their mores, even if this is subtle. ASSOCITE WITH WINNERS TO BE A WINNER. Success breeds success.

  11. jreed says:

    I eat less when I’m dining with thin people.

  12. David says:

    I, on the other hand, eat more when I’m dining with thin people. They leave more of the food for me.

  13. Patty says:

    Its not that you can’t be friends with contrary people but also more that you should carefully choose activities. If you are more likely to buy with someone then choose to visit them in a park or your home rather than in a shopping mall.

  14. Steven says:

    There are topics I tend to separate when I’m with people. These include money, politics and religion.

    Some of the people I get along with very well are the complete opposite of me on politics and religion.

    I am very frugal in certain aspects of my life, and I budget myself so I am able to spend $200 on a night out if I feel like it. The people I go out with only see the big spender part of me, and realize this is not an every night type of thing and I don’t eat out 3 meals a day like they do. They rather spend a certain amount everyday and I’d rather go all-out every once in a while.

    We don’t give eat other crap about our way of living our lives. We are who we want to be, and are not influenced by the peer pressure exerted by each other. If you are easily swayed by who you’re with, then that means you’re uncomfortable with yourself and who you are.

    If the Hawthorne Effect affects you so much, then it’s not who you are, it’s who you are pretending to be.

    I’m not saying I myself am impervious, but the reason for doing things shouldn’t be so shallow.

  15. Pattie, RN says:

    I’m just impressed at the reference. Haven’t heard it since by first time through college getting a Business degree!!

  16. A new environment produces new behavior.
    Eating with big eaters, you eat more, etc.

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  17. Jen says:

    I’m much tidier when I have roommates, even when they are not so tidy. Especially when they’re not so tidy. :-)

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