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  • Laura Huey

Re-examining the Hawthorne Effect

It is an accepted piece of wisdom that policing – like most institutions - has a graveyard out back full of failed, dead programs. I will say, though, that if I had my way, the headstone count would be significantly higher. As I like to say, there’s a “few darlings that needs some killing*.”


That said, my focus here is on why programs that seem to start very well, promising strong results, seemingly go off the rails over time. Anyone who is familiar with Larry Sherman’s work will know he is famous for (among other things) conceptualizing program evaluation as the 3Ts. As it’s the holiday long weekend, and I’m feeling a tad sluggish, I’ll just insert the relevant slide from our Intro course:



In a subsequent paper, Larry, with Molly Slothower and Peter Neyroud (2015) ran a, relatively speaking, long-term program evaluation and were able to observe how a program can lose steam.



The reasons for such phenomenon are many – and some are highlighted and well articulated by Slothower and her colleagues – however, one potential cause that hasn’t generated a lot of attention and should is: the Hawthorne Effect.


For those of you for whom Psych 101 was a long time ago, I offer this refresher:


The Hawthorne, or Observer Effect, was explained in the 1950s, when it was discovered by researchers that the simple act of observing individuals can cause them to change their behaviour. Of course, as soon as they are no longer being observed, they simply return to their normal activities.


Let’s explain this in the context of policing: you have been “voluntold” that the Chief will be riding with you tonight so that he or she can observe a patrol shift out on the road. Will you:


1. Act exactly as you always do, or

2. Dot your is and cross your Ts because you’re not a dummy.


Now let’s flash back to that new patrol program your Deputy Chief has just told everyone was going to be highly successful (which will be proven just as soon as those cars start rolling out). To prove how successful it will be, he (or she) has given orders to everyone in the patrol division to make it successful (*hard eye stare here*). Not surprisingly, in the first few weeks, it IS successful! Until … it’s not anymore. What happened? Likely people returned to their normal behaviours.


Now let’s return to the Slothower paper and key in on the single most important part of the paper’s abstract:


"We show that when the results of tracking were fed back to officers to improve compliance, and to managers, who then redesigned policy and training in repeated iterations, the quality of implementation and victim satisfaction improved substantially."


In other words, if people don’t buy into the change, in order to maintain program integrity, you have to design constant feedback loops so police managers can potentially watch over staff to ensure compliance.


By the way, if you’re interested: Paul Rinkoff (TPS) did his doctoral research on the role of Sergeants in ensuring policy compliance. They, along with Staffs, clearly play a vital role in this process.


Moral of the story: your best bet for program success over the long-term is organizational commitment at all levels … or surveillance tracking devices.



*The expression, to “kill your darlings”, apparently comes from a piece of advice by the writer William Faulkner. More recently, it can be found in a great book by Al Pittampali (2016) on effective organizational leadership.

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