The Observer Effect, and what it means for you

“I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers.”

— Isaac Asimov

It’s a subtle, imperceptible change. Do you find yourself behaving directly when under someone else’s gaze? Or simply put, do you behave differently in the public eye vis-à-vis your private life?

If you’ve been nodding along as you read this, you’re not alone; it’s called the Observer Effect. It manifests in simple things, such as the manner in which you perk up and behave differently when you’re going for a job interview. This Effect can help you better understand people, by simply postulating that observing things changes them, and some phenomena only exist when observed.

Consider the humble guidebook. Simply by publishing an attraction or destination as an off-beat thing to do or visit, we irrevocably transform the view by opening it to outsiders. The mere act of publishing the off-the-beaten-track hole-in-the-wall means the track becomes well-trodden, and that is has been altered by means of observation.

The act of looking at somethings can fundamentally alter it – an effect that holds true for people, animals, even atoms. Equally, the opposite holds true for certain immutable truths; the moon will not change its orbit or state of being when gazed from a telescope. But particularly when it comes to people, it is invariably true that they change when they know they’re under observation. So the next time you observe someone, keep in mind that their behaviour might not be entirely natural, and that your presence might have altered things greatly.

The Observer Effect is simply a state of mindfulness where we “notice things” to a much greater degree than otherwise.

So how does one apply it to oneself and the organization?

If, as a leader, you wish to effect change in your organization, finding some way to ensure someone else observes it closely can be an effective technique. For instance, the introduction of fitness wearables goads friends to live healthier lives or hit the gym when they might not have done so normally. Similarly, sharing progress on a project regularly can help keep teams and individuals honest and accountable, and more likely to stay the course. At a more extreme, some would say intrusive level, installing software on office devices that tracks how often we use social media or simply browse websites aimlessly can reduce our usage of these sites.

There is a caveat too; consider how observing reality may distort results. More critical than simply observing everything like a hawk, it is imperative we factor in the difference that observation makes. The Observer Effect can help foster a culture of responsibility that drives individuals or teams to achieve  goals and remain focused in the pursuit of a greater good.

If we want to gain an accurate picture of the world, it pays to consider how we take that picture. For instance, you cannot assume that an employee’s behavior in a meeting translates to their work, or that the way your kids act at home is the same as in the playground. We all act differently when we know we are being watched.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members

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