Monday, January 23, 2012

The Power of Observation

As every student learns in introductory science (and psychology) classes, all research has a caveat: the act of measuring or observing a phenomenon changes the phenomenon. These unintended observation effects, called Hawthorne Effects, are both unavoidable, and hard to distinguish from the rest of the data.

Now, you may not be interested in research, but you should still be interested in the Hawthorne effect. Why, you ask? Well, as therapists, we are in the business of both observing people, and bringing about change. If observation itself has the potential to create change, it warrants serious thought.

I'm pretty sure the police have been using this idea to their advantage for years. Think about it: everyone is a great driver...when there's a police cruiser in sight. Observation creates change. A trooper only has to hang out in a particular location for a little while, every now and then, in order to get drivers to consistently slow down just in case. Of course, when the police want to catch people being less cautious drivers, they have to stay out of sight - but that's another story.

So, how might this apply to therapy?

  1. As we all know, people aren't always accurate self-reporters. There are many reasons for this, but at least one of them is that people adjust their self-presentation when they're with other people, especially when they want the other person to perceive or respond to them in certain ways. This process is usually subconscious, rather than intentional, but it means that we should consider the possibility that we're not hearing the absolute truth. This is most important with actively suicidal or homicidal clients who may be telling us they are fine, in order to have the freedom to act.
  2. On a more positive note, expressing a desire or intention for change (whatever the target behavior) increases action toward change. Even simply signing up for treatment can lead to progress, without any other intervention. In fact, a premise of brief treatment is that people tend to have more momentum to pursue a circumscribed change within a limited time period after starting treatment.
  3. Wherever someone is the treatment process, we can harness the Hawthorne Effect by judiciously adding more direct observation. For example, having a client observe and track a target behavior, thoughts, feelings - whatever - is likely to change the frequency of the target. You do have to think it through, though - observation has the potential to increase the desired behavior...or the undesired behavior. For example, in the work I do with eating disorders, we sometimes ask clients to track their eating. Some of them find it helpful to have the accountability of tracking it. However, for others, tracking is triggering and leads them to eat less rather than more. This is also another great argument for individualizing treatment - the same intervention can have different effects with different people.
There are probably other ways that the Hawthorne Effect could be a resource (or a liability) in therapy? Are there other examples that spring to your mind?

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