Temptation at Work

by Alessandro Bucciol, Daniel Houser & Marco Piovesan

Overview — Among the many distractions that keep office employees from their work, surfing the web is arguably the most irresistible time-waster of all. In order to deal with that problem, many companies either prohibit Internet use during working hours, or closely monitor employees' web activity. This means workers must wait until they get home to get their daily YouTube fix. But does forbidding this distraction actually increase productivity? In this paper, researchers find that the answer is no—and that delaying gratification actually has a negative impact on employee performance. Research was conducted by Alessandro Bucciol of the University of Verona and the University of Amsterdam, Daniel Houser of George Mason University, and Marco Piovesan, a research fellow at Harvard Business School. Key concepts include:

  • Experimental research finds that subjects who were told to resist the temptation of watching a funny video made significantly more mistakes on a subsequent task than subjects who were allowed to watch the video right away.
  • The findings suggest that employers should not tell employees not to surf the web in situations where the web is technically available to them. Rather, these companies should either remove web access entirely or, when this is not practical, allow a certain amount of time for personal Internet activity.
  • Employers might also consider allowing regular Internet breaks, in the same way that they offer coffee and cigarette breaks.

Author Abstract

To encourage worker productivity offices prohibit Internet use. Consequently, many employees delay Internet activity to the end of the workday. Recent work in social psychology, however, suggests that using willpower to delay gratification can negatively impact performance. We report data from an experiment where subjects in a Willpower Treatment are asked to resist the temptation to join others in watching a humorous video for 10 minutes. In relation to a baseline treatment that does not require will power, we show that resisting this temptation detrimentally impacts economic productivity on a subsequent task.

Paper Information