The Hawthorn Effect and ‘Cleaning the House’ before important visitors arrive.

The Panopticon a prison where every inmate (thinks) they are being observed continually. Plan of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison, drawn by Willey Reveley in 1791. Source:

What do you do when people aren’t watching you? This might be a post about the difference between EPISODIC regulation and something that has more of an ANTHROPOLOGICAL feel to it. Let see how it goes…

Alternatively, if none of that makes any sense, how about this question, What do you do before your Mother/Father-in-law visits?

I was asked the question by Paul Barach from Wayne State University School of Medicine, Chicago at the Patient Powered Safety event organised by Chris Subbe at Bangor University. This is how the exchange went…

  • PB. What do you do at home before your Mother/Father-in-law visits?
  • Me. Clean up the house of course.
  • PB. What do you do once she/he has left?
  • Me. Return to my slobish lifestyle…

Paul pointed out that this was the ‘Mother/Father-in-law is visiting’ regulatory approach and is commonly seen in situations where organisations are having a visit from the auditor/inspector or any other type of regulator. The behaviour and practice demonstrated while the inspector is ‘on-site’ does not mirror what happens once the inspector steps outside the front door, and returns to his/her own home. Episodic regulation (visits once in while) fits this pattern and does not always give an accurate picture of what happens the rest of the time. Paul referred me to an approach used by the US Nuclear Regulation Commission (NRC) of ‘Resident Inspectors’. Basically it’s your Mother/Father-in-law coming to live with you, Inspectors who are permanently based at Nuclear Facilities. I’ll talk more about that in a moment, but first, The Hawthorne Effect.

We behave differently when we are being observed. The Hawthorn Effect (also known as Observer Effect) refers to experiments that were carried out in the 1920’s at the Hawthorne Works near Chicago. The works were a huge manufacturing facility making telecommunications equipment, with people willing to participate in work based psychology experiments.

Some of the basic experiments involved changing the levels of light in parts of the factory to see if it affected the productivity of workers. Light levels were increased and light levels were decreased. The observations indicated that pretty much no matter what happened (lights up, lights down), worker productivity increased while the experiment was running, and the workers were being ‘observed’. Once the observation has stopped, things return to normal.

The general principle that has fallen out of this is The Hawthorn Effect, people will change their behaviour when they know they are being observed. This seems totally obvious, we’ve all done it, we’ve all seen it (or am I being naive?)

A personal observation; over the years I’ve seen multiple ‘observations’ of meetings, committees and people ‘doing their jobs’. Most of the time the observers seem to ignore their ‘effect’ (Hawthorn) and the impact they might be having. For example a Chief Executive or Director sitting in as ‘observers’ on a staff focus group about how to improve the business. It’s clear (to me) that their presence is going to influence behaviour and what is produced.

There’s a lot of debate about the impact of the Hawthorn Effect, and the original data it was based upon, but it is widely accepted as being a real phenomenon. If you want to know a bit more about The Hawthorne Effect I’d recommend this BBC Radio 4 Mind Changers programme with Claudia Hammond.

Three Mile Island Changed Regulation. Before we dive into the NRC Resident Inspectors Programme have a look at this video from Thomas Wellock, NRC Historian. Tom explains the Three Mile Island nuclear incident of 1979 and some of the changes that happened as a result. How fantastic to have an organisational Historian; someone dedicated to learning the lessons from history to inform the present and the future. I think we could do with a few more organisational historians in prominent places.

NRC Resident Inspector Programme. Your Mother/Father-in-law coming to live with you, long term. Following Three Mile Island this represented a shift from episodic regulation to something more continuous. A presence on-site that is continually ‘there’ and continuously observing what you do.

There are some interesting features of the Resident Inspector Programme that are edging towards this idea of anthropological regulation I mentioned earlier:

  • Inspectors live in the local community,
  • They don’t socialise with workers from the facility,
  • They have unrestricted access around the facility,
  • There will be two of them (support, checking in on each other etc),
  • They spend a lot of time ‘observing’ what gets done and,
  • They stay for a maximum of 7 years before they move on.

There’s more detail in the NRC graphic booklet, A Day in the Life of an NRC Resident Inspector. I’d also recommend it as an example of making a technical topic accessible and easy to understand.

Observational Regulation. US.Nuclear Regulation Commission publication. A Day in the Life of an NRC Resident Inspector. Accessible and easy to understand. Source:

Episodic to Anthropological Regulation. Anthropology is the study of humans, how they behave and the ‘society’ around them. The methods tend to involve long term observation, done in a way that aims to not change or have an effect on the subject it is observing. I’m sure you can see where I’m going here. There’s a big difference between an episodic (clean the house before visitors) regulatory visit and the ‘live there permanently’ approach of the NRC Resident Inspectors. I’m not sure it would be defined as anthropological regulation, but I think it’s worth thinking about as something that could be applied in other settings for two main reasons:

  • Avoiding the ‘clean up the house’ approach – you get a more realistic picture of what happens when the regulators aren’t there.
  • Behaviours are changed, possibly permanently. If people do things for a long time because they are being observed there’s a chance that a behaviour will become a permanent habit. There are obviously negatives to this around the impact of continuous observation. This is where the Panopticon Prison diagram from earlier fits it – but that’s another topic for the future.

One thing I’m trying to work out is where this fits with the idea of Generative Regulation I wrote about in this post: Pathological to Generative. Moving up the Regulation Culture Ladder with Bruce. I’m wondering if anthropological regulation would support a generative approach or actually stifle it? Innovation and better ways of doing things might become suppressed as the people being observed behave in a way that a regulator ‘expects’? Who knows, but it’s probably worth an anthropological study.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. People change their behavior when they are being observed, and they do something different when they aren’t being observed. The Hawthorn Effect.
  2. Episodic regulation (a visit from your Mother/Father-in-law) generates non-routine behaviours (cleaning the house) that stop when the inspection is over (back to the couch…).
  3. A more anthropological approach; long term, non intrusive observation might help understand what happens in reality.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

2 Responses

  1. […] There are plenty of ways to overcome this concern though (it’s all just good risk management). The Kings Fund report talks about the training process for Inspectors. If you want to look further afield – try the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Resident Inspectors Programme. Basically the Inspectors become ‘resident’ at the nuclear facility and really get to know what’s going on. To avoid them getting ‘too cosy’ there are all sorts of things in place, and they move on after 7 years. You can have a read about it and find some links in this post I wrote: The Hawthorn Effect and ‘Cleaning the House’ before important visitors arrive. […]

  2. […] The low numbers of Historians and lack of objective institutional memory is effectively the point of the Thread from Jack. When it comes to developing policy, you ignore your history at your peril. The comments are just as enlightening as the post. Some people make the point that there are actually lots of Civil Servants that are qualified as Historians; but they don’t necessarily work formally in that role to help inform policy. There’s also a comment about the United States Government taking the role of Historian more seriously, which did remind me of the fact that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission employed Historians, which I’ve touched on previously. […]

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