About the presenter: John C. Harrison holds a B.A. in English from Dartmouth College and has done extensive graduate work in Language Arts at California State University at San Francisco. He lives with his wife, Doris, a graphic designer, in San Francisco where he works as a freelance writer. He is one of the earliest members of the National Stuttering Association and currently serves as editor of the NSA's monthly newsletter Letting GO. He can be reached at jcharr1234@aol.com.


by John C. Harrison
from California, USA

For many years until the breakup of AT&T, Western Electric Company was the manufacturing arm for the telephone companies of the Bell System. In the 1920s, the Hawthorne plant in Hawthorne, Illinois, employed over 29,000 men and women in the manufacture of telephones, central office equipment, loading coils, telephone wire, lead-covered cable, toll cable, and other forms of telephone apparatus.

In the mid-1920s, the plant began a series of studies on the intangible factors in the work situation that affected the morale and efficiency of shopworkers. The objective was to find out how it could improve worker output. In particular, the company was interested in discovering whether manipulating the lighting, break schedules, and other workplace conditions would lead to higher production. It was thought that even slight improvements could have significant impact on the company's bottom line because of the enormous volume of products that the plant turned out for the Bell network.

One of the earliest experiments involved a group of six women from the coil winding production line. These volunteers were pulled from the line and relocated into a smaller room where various elements of the environment could be manipulated.

The first experiment looked at whether changing the intensity of the lighting in the working environment would have a positive impact on production. The experimenters started out with the same lighting intensity the workers were used to on the production line. They then increased the light a few candlepower.

Production went up.

Pleased with the results, they increased the room light by another few candlepower.

Production went up again.

Now, quite confident that they were on to something, they continued to increase the room lighting a little bit more each time until the illumination in the room was several times the normal intensity. At each increment of change, the production of the six women continued to rise.

At this point, the researchers felt a need to validate their hypothesis that better lighting was responsible for the increased output, so they brought the lighting intensity back to the original starting point and dropped it by a few candlepower.

To their surprise, production continued to go up.

Was this a fluke? Simultaneously bothered and intrigued, the research team reduced the lighting by another couple of candlepower, and sure enough, production continued to rise. They continued to reduce the illumination in the room until the women were working in the dimmest of light. At each lower lighting increment, production was still a little bit higher, and it continued to rise until the lighting was so dim that the women could barely see their work. At that point, their output began to level off.

What was going on?

While the women were just nameless cogs on the production line, they lacked any sense of importance. They had few meaningful associations with their co-workers. Their relationship with their boss was primarily adversarial. He (and it was always a "he") was the whip cracker, exhorting them to work harder and faster. There was little personal responsibility for turning out a quality product. Someone else set the standards, and they just performed according to instructions. There was not much pride in what they did.

It was, to conjure up a familiar phrase, just a job.

But all this changed when the six women were pulled from the production line and given their own private workspace. From the very beginning they basked in the attention paid to them by the research team. Each of the women was not just an impersonal face on the production line. She was now a "somebody."

Because the women were organized into a small group, it was easier to communicate with one another, and friendships blossomed. The women began to socialize after hours, visiting each other's homes, and often joining one another in after hours recreational activities.

The relationship with their immediate supervisor also underwent a transformation. Instead of being a feared boss, the supervisor became someone they could turn to, someone who knew them by name, and who was likely to pay them a compliment if they were doing well. He was also someone that each woman could appeal to directly if there were a problem to be addressed. A group identification formed, and with it, a pride in what they were able to accomplish. All these factors contributed to the higher performance levels of the group.

The coil winding room study was just one of many experiments conducted over a five year period Of the various conclusions drawn, perhaps the most significant was this -- that one could understand the positive improvements only by looking at each work group from the perspective of a social system. In short, it was not any one thing that accounted for the improved performance of the women in the coil winding room. It wasn't the lighting or other physical changes in the working environment, although some of these changes undoubtedly helped. The improvements that took place were primarily explained by the impact of the social system that formed and the ways in which it impacted the performance of each individual group member. The authors of the study concluded that:

The work activities of this group, together with their satisfactions and dissatisfactions, had to be viewed as manifestations of a complex pattern of interrelations.
Over time, this phenomenon came to be known as the Hawthorne Effect.


How does this phenomenon apply to stuttering therapy? What I propose is that it's not just the various fluency techniques employed by the therapist that account for the individual's improved speech. At best, the fluency techniques will correct certain behaviors that are counterproductive to effortless speech; at worst, they will layer another level of control over an already over-controlled way of speaking. Rather, it is the speech related therapy plus the impact of the Hawthorne Effect (the relationship between clinician and client) that leads to progress.

Let's set up a hypothetical situation. Let's say that, as someone with a stuttering problem, you decide to work with a speech pathologist -- we'll call him Bob -- who has set up a two week intensive program for a half dozen clients and is holding it at a local conference center. You'll not only attend the program, you'll also live at the center during that time.

In addition, let us say that Bob employs a fluency shaping approach which involves hours of practice on a voice monitor during the first week that will tell you when you are tensing the muscles in your vocal folds. In that first week you will also learn a whole lot about how speech is produced so that you can visualize the process in your mind. The second week will then be spent using the technique in real-world situations, such as on the telephone and on the street.

At the end of the first week, you begin to see real progress. You have now demystified your stuttering by learning what's going on in your voice box when you speak as well as when you block. And because of the electronic feedback, you can now distinguish the difference between tight and relaxed vocal folds, something you were not aware of before. All this is proving very helpful.

But is that all that is going on?

Not really. There's a lot more, and it relates to the Hawthorne Effect.

Because Bob is an open and accepting person, for the first time, you feel totally self-accepted, even during difficult speaking situations. Virtually every communication between you and Bob is designed, not just to pass along information, but to bolster your self-esteem. Every piece of constructive feedback is accompanied by a positive statement that reinforces your sense of self. Bob listens attentively to all your concerns and shows infinite patience in exploring the issues with you. Nothing you say is ever devalued. Your relationship with the other students is equally supportive.

In this totally eupsychian (i.e., good for the psyche) environment, your sense of self begins to change. Not only is your speech changing, so are your self-confidence, your self-image, and your self-limiting beliefs. You are more willing to express what you feel. All these new, positive changes begin to organize themselves into a more upbeat and empowering system that reinforces and supports your new speech behaviors. As you keep at it, the various elements of the new system continue to reinforce one another.

And lo and behold, by the end of the two-week program, the system has become self-supporting.

Like riding a bicycle

If you stop and think of it, establishing a self-supporting system is hardly a totally unique experience for any of us. Remember when you first learned to ride a bicycle? My memories of it are still vivid. My father helped me learn by running alongside me on the street, holding the bike upright as I pedaled. Back and forth we'd go. I can remember after a couple of days thinking that I'd never get it. In fact, I didn't even know what the "it" was that I was looking for. The goal seemed totally unattainable. But my body was learning on an unconscious level. And little by little, I began to get the vaguest sense of what it would feel like to be able to stay upright without assistance.

I remember the day it finally came together. This particular afternoon I took my bike into the driveway and parked it next to the front gate. I got on the bike, using the gate to prop myself up. Then I pushed off. My subconscious mind must have been processing the previous experiences outside of my awareness, because suddenly my body knew how to stay upright. Everything came together, just like that.

"Wow," I thought. "This is what riding a bike is all about."

This is similar to the changes that take place in a therapeutic relationship that is truly eupsychian. The skills you acquire and the personal ways in which you change during the learning process all start working together, and a different reality is created.

Not just your speech is transformed.

You are transformed.

Sliding back

Then why, unlike riding a bicycle, is there a such a tendency to slip backward after speech therapy? Why do so many people find themselves struggling with the same old speech problems in a matter of weeks or months. Once again, it has to do with the Hawthorne Effect.

Let's return to the women in the coil winding room. One of the questions that was never answered was -- "What happened when the experiment ended and the six women were returned to their regular jobs on the production line. Did they continue to perform at their new, higher levels?"

I doubt it.

In the beginning, they might have kept up their higher production rates. The new emotions, perceptions, beliefs, and intentions would have continued to reinforce each another for a period of time. But without the continual reinforcement of a supportive environment, the women would have gradually and unconsciously readapted to the old environment -- one that did not encourage initiative and was not personal, an environment that promoted an adversarial relationship between worker and manager. In the end, the women would have become once again "just workers." And their production would have fallen.

Similarly, the client who leaves the clinician's office must now step into a world where the people he encounters are not focused on building his self-esteem and who may fail to exhibit infinite patience while he struggles with his speech-related issues. People in the outer world can be hurried, insensitive, uninformed, and inwardly focused on their own personal agenda. Even worse, the client may have to go back into a family environment where family members are non-expressive, judgmental, and insensitive to his needs.

Since the new, positive internal system he's built up in the therapist's office is still very tentative and fragile, it is easy for it to break down due to a lack of support. Suddenly the client who has been making such excellent strides in the therapist's office is paralyzed and unable to speak when he gets back to his home or office. The speech techniques that he's worked so hard to acquire seem too difficult to use in the face of the panic that arises in particular speaking situations. The risks become overwhelming, and he (or she) retreats back into the old familiar speech patterns.

There are many speech clinicians who are fully convinced that the improved fluency of their clients is due primarily to their success with a particular fluency technique. These practitioners fall into the same trap that the Hawthorne researchers initially did in attempting to explain the improved performance of the ladies in the coil winding room. Had the researchers never attempted to validate their findings by lowering the lights in the work room, they might have easily concluded that the improved performance was solely caused by brightening the lights. Similarly, the clinician who focuses only on fluency shaping techniques might conclude that improvements are solely the result of those techniques and overlook the impact of the relationship between herself and the client.

In both examples of the plant workers and the stutterer in therapy, the Hawthorne Effect plays a major role -- and in many cases the major role -- in any rise or decline in performance. The greater challenge, then, lies in how to make self-sustaining the new emotions, perceptions, beliefs, intentions, and behaviors, even in the face of an unfriendly environment.


What the researchers at Western Electric's Hawthorne plant learned is that answers sometimes lie, not in the exotic, but in the ordinary. Sometimes the answer has been lying under our very noses all along, not in a new component, but in understanding a new relationship that ties together elements so common that we never bothered to notice them.

This essay has argued that stuttering is not the product of some exotic genetic glitch but a relationship of common components. In short, a stuttering system. And that it is not just the parts, themselves, but the synergistic relationship between the parts that brings stuttering to life. The system is called the Stuttering Hexagon, and it is composed of your emotions, perceptions, beliefs, intentions, physiological responses, and physical behaviors.

The force that binds these components together is called "The Hawthorne Effect." What results is a living system that operates according to predictable laws and rules; a system that involves not just your speech, but your entire self.

To understand this system and to know how it works is to recognize that stuttering can be changed, reduced, and in some cases, even defeated. Once you understand the parts that make up the system, it becomes easier to map out viable strategies that have a better chance of providing the long-lasting improvements we have all been looking for.

Questions and comments may be addressed to John C. Harrison, 3748 22nd Street, San Francisco, CA 94114. Phone: 415-647-4700. Fax: 415-285-4359. E-mail: jcharr1234@aol.com or johnnyh@holonet.net. A longer and substantially expanded version of this essay may be found at another location on this web site.