Have you ever noticed yourself behaving better when in the company of others?  Maybe you were a bit more careful behind the wheel when a friend was riding in the car, or perhaps you chose to recycle that glass bottle rather than toss it in the garbage.  Maybe you chose the healthy option when out to lunch with your coworkers, or you gave a slightly larger tip than you would have had you been eating alone.

Even though your colleagues probably don’t care what you’re having for lunch, their mere presence makes you more likely to make choices you think they’ll approve of. People experience this strange phenomenon differently and to different degrees, but it is so well-established that researchers have dubbed it "the observer effect," (also known as “the Hawthorne effect”) and they even make sure to control for the bias it introduces in behavioral experiments.

The origin of the observer effect

In the 1920s, sociologist Elton Mayo conducted a series of experiments to determine the effect of the physical work environment on employees’ productivity. An electric company in the Chicago suburb of Hawthorne commissioned studies to determine whether their workers might perform better if the factory was better lit. Mayo divided the subjects into two groups, and provided one with a much greater amount of ambient lighting while they worked.

Initial results confirmed the company’s suspicion—where the lighting was adjusted, productivity quickly improved.  But when the lights were dimmed again, performance actually improved even further. The researchers began modifying other working conditions like breaks, meal times, etc., and discovered that with the adjustment of any experimental variable, productivity seemed to increase.  The final piece of the puzzle was that, when the experiments were over and the workers returned to work unsupervised, their productivity returned to same baseline levels from before.

Years later in 1955, researcher Henry A. Landsberger reviewed Mayo’s data, and connected the dots to reveal one of the most famous phenomena in the field of research bias:  he suggested that the increased productivity was actually the result of observation itself, not lighting conditions or meal times.  When the workers knew that someone was paying attention to them and measuring their output, productivity skyrocketed.

How it works

The observer effect is usually attributed to the simple fact that human beings are social creatures, and we like to please others.  That means when we know others are expecting a certain behavior from us, we don’t like to let them down.  Whether consciously or subconsciously, we are more likely to make choices we know will get a good reaction from others.

Interestingly, knowing we are being noticed improves our performance even if the observer isn’t physically present.  In a 2011 study, motion-activated video cameras were placed throughout a hospital in the US to observe how often clinical staff washed their hands before and after working with patients.  Before the staff knew they were being assessed, they only washed their hands 6.4% of the time.  When they were informed of the experiment however (and received feedback about their appalling hand hygiene), the rate of handwashing shot up to 87.9% in just a few months.  In another study conducted at a children’s museum, visitors were far more likely to donate money to the museum when a picture of a pair of eyes hung above the donation box.

How noticing your members can help them succeed

The observation effect partially explains why members who work out with a personal trainer, a buddy, or as part of a small group exercise class visit their clubs significantly more often and retain their memberships for longer.  If they fail to show up for a scheduled session, someone is going to notice, and they know it, meaning members who are accountable to others are much less likely to miss sessions unnecessarily.  Therefore, they tend to visit more consistently, and, as we’ve written before, consistency is the key to creating a lasting exercise habit.

The problem, of course, is that most gym-goers train alone.  At a typical club, if a member misses a workout or two or even a whole week, no one is going to be any the wiser.  That’s especially true at budget gyms where there is no regular staff, and there are so many other members you could go months without encountering a familiar face.

As an operator, how you leverage this phenomenon to help members and improve your business depends on your ability to notice each one and communicate that you care.  For some clubs, it might be enough for the reception team to simply greet each visitor by name.  It might be scheduling a session with each member to review their progress so far, or sending them a personal message with feedback on how they’re doing.  However you choose to approach it, the observer effect is yet another example of how focusing on quality customer service and personal attention is one of the best and most profitable things you can do for your club.

CoachAi keeps in touch with members throughout their journey, helping them track their progress and providing personalized feedback. Learn more 👉