Hawthorne and placebo and real benefit

The Hawthorne effect (here’s the wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawthorne_effect) describes how any intervention has a positive effect. By paying people attention, you change their behaviour. Were I a Deepak Chopra or a dancing Wu Li master, I would probably relate that to the idea of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle or Schrodinger’s cat because everybody thinks they know what those mean and they sound as if you’re wise because there’s deep maths in there somewhere.

Instead, I’m going to relate it to the placebo effect. This is much more straightforward, and is obviously used in medical trials. People are given a placebo treatment, which resembles the active treatment with the active ingredient removed, and the effects of the placebo and the active treatment are compared. In a double-blind trial, neither the experimenter nor the subject knows who has received the placebo and who has received the active treatment.

The reason this is important is because people want to believe that interventions work. One of the subjects I studied at UCL was affective interaction: how humans, computers and other devices affect each other emotionally. One of the theories expressed was the idea that humans are attempting to achieve homeostasis. You have an input of one sort or another, and you change your behaviour to achieve stability. One of the ways you do that is to tell yourself a story in which things have meaning and value. And one of the ways that things achieve meaning and value is how they fit into a culture. Tall people (on average) earn more money than shorter people. Good-looking people are more likely to get jobs, etc., than ugly people. We live in a world of admiration of beauty, where beauty is equated to goodness.

If someone tells us they are doing something to help us, we want to believe them (unless we are cussed and cynical creatures).

The vast number of self-help books, business-help books and teach-yourself books are sold to us by people who have persuaded us that they can help. We want to believe them. We listen to their advice. And the more we pay for it, the more highly we value it (just as the more we pay for wine or pain-killers, the better we think they are).

So if we are told that someone is coming in to tell us how to redesign a control room, and that person is being paid $5000 a day, then we react to it. And when the control room is redesigned, we react to that. But until the change is seen in practice, over time, we don’t know if we are reacting to what we think is a valuable intervention, or to an intervention because it’s a change and we have been paid intention to, or because it has actually improved things.

With any luck, that highly-paid consultant has listened and observed the people doing the work, and added their insights and experiences to the redesign. So when they complain that they knew this all along, and they could have told management how to do things better, they will have done so. And management will have listened because this time it comes with a high price tag that conveys its worth,