(Phys.org) —The Hawthorne effect is a concept whereby subjects modify and change their behavior in response to the fact that they know they are being studied. A team from Carnegie Mellon have applied this phenomenon to the question of whether people might change their energy savings habits for the better if they are aware they are being watched. The findings, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), are that people use less energy when they believe they are being watched. In turn, energy consumption can be reduced if people are told they are participating in a study.
In preparing their research for the paper, "The Hawthorne Effect and Energy Awareness," Daniel Schwartz and colleagues partnered with a mid-Atlantic utility company in 2011. The researchers chose 5600 households, which were randomly selected. Half served as the control group, none of whom knew that a study was going on.
The other half were told by postcard they had been chosen to participate in a one-month study. They knew the study was about electricity use, but they were not required to take any actions and they were not given any special incentives.
They were sent four more postcards reminding them of the study. The study results: Households that were told about the study cut their electricity consumption by 2.7 percent during the study month.
"We find evidence for a 'pure' (study participation) Hawthorne effect in electricity use," the authors wrote. "Residential consumers who received weekly postcards informing them that they were in a study reduced their monthly use by 2.7%—an amount greater than the annual conservation goal currently mandated by any state."
An interesting finding about this study, and not one to be overlooked, is that the energy savings went away after the research period came to an end. The changed behavior did not last. All households returned to their typical energy consumption.
The authors shared some insights about this and the nature of the Hawthorne effect in scientific research:
"The Hawthorne effect has long been known as a potential experimental artifact..any socially acceptable way of increasing awareness might reduce consumption for those motivated to do so, but only as long as the intervention continues." The authors further noted:"if awareness alone can improve performance in contexts where people require no additional information, we might retire the 'Hawthorne effect' in favor of a 'Hawthorne strategy' of reminding people about things that matter to them but can get neglected in the turmoil of everyday life."
Explore further: Boeing and Chinese firm to turn 'gutter oil' into jet fuel
More information: The Hawthorne effect and energy awareness, PNAS, Published online before print September 3, 2013, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1301687110
The feeling of being observed or merely participating in an experiment can affect individuals' behavior. Referred to as the Hawthorne effect, this inconsistently observed phenomenon can both provide insight into individuals' behavior and confound the interpretation of experimental manipulations. Here, we pursue both topics in examining how the Hawthorne effect emerges in a large field experiment focused on residential consumers' electricity use. These consumers received five postcards notifying, and then reminding, them of their participation in a study of household electricity use. We found evidence for a Hawthorne (study participation) effect, seen in a reduction of their electricity use—even though they received no information, instruction, or incentives to change. Responses to a follow-up survey suggested that the effect reflected heightened awareness of energy consumption. Consistent with that interpretation, the treatment effect vanished when the intervention ended.