Temptation at Work: A Field Experiment on Willpower and Productivity
Temptations are a largely unavoidable part of life. Resisting them is usually seen as a virtuous behavior. Recent research in social psychology, however, suggests that using willpower to delay gratification can detrimentally impact performance on immediately subsequent tasks. Using standard economic theory, we develop a model connecting willpower to productivity. When delaying gratification is difficult, the model predicts exposure to a tempting good detrimentally impacts productivity, while when delaying gratification is easy, exposure to temptation can lead to productivity gains. We then report data from a field experiment with children of different ages. Since the research in child development has established that younger children have difficulty delaying gratification, while after age 10 children become skilled at doing so, we exploited this exogenous variation to test the predictions of our model. Our results suggest that a prohibited temptation affects work productivity in a way consistent with theory: it is negative for the youngest children (aged under 8) and positive for the oldest (aged above 10). We also observe a significantly different impact by gender. It thus seems that prohibiting a temptation needs not eliminate its impact on productivity, a result of importance to anyone interested in designing policies to promote efficiency.
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