Workers Wasting Time Web Surfing? Study Suggests It May Not be the Worst Thing


Studies show American workers waste over an hour per day surfing online. Not ideal, right? But Harvard Business School researcher Marco Piovesan conducted a study concluding that those who are forbidden from Internet use may be even less productive. Read why (and check out the entire article):

To test the hypothesis, the researchers used a variation of the "Marshmallow Task," a classic psychological experiment in which children were shown one marshmallow, and told they would be rewarded with two marshmallows if they could resist the temptation to eat the first treat until the instructor returned to the room. Only 30 percent of the kids could hold out.

But instead of measuring wait time, the team measured the ability of children to complete actual work tasks—folding paper per instructions—at an Italian summer camp in 2008. Children facing temptation got less work done, even given the promise of eventual reward of candy and soda: They not only completed fewer tasks, but also made more mistakes, which downgraded their performance.

"We’d expect to find that being more flexible in monitoring Internet use could increase productivity."(The effect was particularly pronounced for children below age 9, who were found to be on average 21 percent less productive than the children in the control group—while for children over age 9, there was shown to be no significant difference, a finding consistent with previous research showing that children begin developing willpower between the ages of 8 and 10. For more, see their article "Temptation and Productivity: A Field Experiment with Children," forthcoming in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.)

Despite the fact that the study was done with children, Piovesan saw clear implications for adults—hypothesizing that the effects would change not only with age, but also with the degree of temptation. "If we used the same temptation of candies in an office, probably we wouldn’t find anything, but using a different temptation that is stronger for older subjects, the effect would be stronger."

In a recent set of experiments detailed in "Temptation at Work," Piovesan and his colleagues tested exactly that using 20- to 25-year-old college students in an office environment. Instead of paper-folding, the test subjects were given a simple task of counting the number of times people passed a ball back and forth in a video. Between tasks, however, half of the subjects were allowed to watch a video of the British comedy TV show Mr. Bean. The other half were confronted with a flashing red button at the bottom of their screens warning them not to play the video. Upping the temptation, the latter group was able to overhear the video playing nearby and laughter of the students.

As with the summer camp kids, the researchers found that the students facing temptation were more apt to make mistakes and were less productive overall than the control students, underscoring that no matter how much willpower we adults think we have, we are still susceptible to tempting distractions.

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