One of the great benefits of being involved in the men and father’s movement is that I am exposed to many men who are able to think and feel from the heart. In our comatose society reading the writings of such men is like drinking from a cool well on a hot day.
One such man is Tim Baehr. One of his articles that I read some time ago is called ‘Hawthorne & Rosenthal’ – the story of cause and effect.
From 1924 to 1932 a series of experiments was performed at the Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois. This was a manufacturing facility for Western Electric, a company that made telephones and other consumer goods.
A selected group of employees was given better lighting. Productivity went up. The lights were dimmed. Productivity went . . . up! Although the research was primarily about lighting, other changes were tried. In each case, no matter what the change was, productivity almost always went up, at least for a short time. A later researcher called this the Hawthorne Effect. Although there are many interpretations of what was really going on, the common take is that the workers were responding to being communicated with and paid attention to – even if the change was to take away a previous benefit.
More than three decades later, Robert Rosenthal and his associate told teachers that certain of their students were brighter than their previous work might have indicated. These students, the experimenters said, were ready to blossom. The students improved, even though they were no different from other students in the class. The phenomenon, dubbed the Rosenthal Effect, was that behaviour could be changed by changing expectations.
The most recent invoking of the Hawthorne Effect to explain behavioural phenomena has been in the treatment of autistic children. While few of the 100 or so treatments for autism have been shown conclusively effective, parents report improvements for many of them: their children become more interactive, more alive. Sydney Speisel, a paediatrician who treats autistic kids, thinks that this may be an example of the Hawthorne Effect. People, including autistic kids, respond well to attention and interaction, and to the notion that they are worthy of attention and interaction. (See http://www.slate.com/id/2215076/ for details.)
The Rosenthal Effect may have been active too, in the sense that positive expectations change our interactions with people, and they respond accordingly.
The sets of experiments at Hawthorne and those done by Rosenthal may feel like clinical or even cynical manipulation, but I think it’s worth looking for some underlying wisdom and some applications in our daily lives.
Attention Must Be Paid
What would happen, for instance, if we paid more attention to our partners, our kids, our parents, our friends, our colleagues, our bosses, the people who work for us? According to the Hawthorne experiments, it almost doesn’t matter what the other incidentals of our behaviour may be, as long as we are communicating and paying attention. What form would the attention take? How about really listening without interjecting an agenda of our own? How about noticing body language and tone of voice and trying to discern discontent or contentment? How about asking more questions instead of making assumptions or being eager to jump in with answers?
As I read Tim Baehr’s writings I thought about my many failures as a father and even as a husband. I could write a book about my failures, but it would be too depressing. However, I am able to always say that ‘I tried’. Over the years, I have often done the wrong thing, but most of the time, I was at least trying.
It struck me that, like the workers at the Hawthorne Works, my children and my wife responded graciously because even if what I was doing wasn’t the best, at least it showed that I loved them. As Steve Biddulph says, “Love grows the brain”.
Keep on reading books, going to courses, trying new ideas and reading this newsletter because the ‘Hidden Secret of Good Fathering’, according to Tim Baehr, could be as simple as paying attention. Even in our imperfections, love will find a way.