Why we are spending less time with family and friends

Tiago Rodrigo
4 min readJan 14, 2022
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Even though it is related to increased levels of happiness and well-being, most adults say they spend little time with their family and friends — in average, 1 hour of quality time per day. Based on this, a group of Behavioral Scientists led by Ashley Whillans started a research to find its possible causes.

Along 2021, the group conducted a study involving three experiments and one survey, and analyzed a database of more than 77,000 people. Results point to one main reason: performance incentives.

This type of financial benefit plays a critical role in how people decide to allocate their time. Mostly, because it places work relations in an instrumental perspective, leading people to prioritize them over personal ties.

Incentives have already been tested in several areas. Studies indicate that, under certain circumstances, they can

There is an extensive literature investigating its consequences: whether they effectively increase productivity or only efforts dedicated to specific tasks; if there are any reverse effects on intrinsic motivation; gender bias, ethical behavior, value people attribute to money; and social relationships — such as this study by Whillans and colleagues.

Here, an important element comes up: salience. The mere fact that such incentives are available makes individuals more prone to act in terms of maximizing their gains. For example: if a car salesman earns a commission for each vehicle sold, every transaction will be a monetary reminder, reinforcing behaviors towards making more money.

Therefore, this search for financial rewards shapes our perception about other people and whether they are useful (or not) to help us achieve a goal. From this perspective, friends and family can be interpreted as “less instrumental”, and then receive smaller portions of our time.

In the study, some hypotheses were tested — and validated! — , whereas exposure to performance incentives:

  1. Increase the priority given to work relationships: yes, people become more likely to socialize with co-workers, even if it means sacrificing time with family and friends
  2. Increase the perception of instrumentality in work relationships: yes, socialization with co-workers is perceived as a valid and important way to achieve professional goals

Suggestions for a new approach

A man in his home office looking over to the beach
Illustration by Kevin Whipple.

We may not realize it, especially in the short term, but by prioritizing professional relationships, we generally sacrifice important factors associated with happiness and well-being.

For this reason, the authors suggest that companies and managers begin to value their employees in a time-related context, rewarding people with time-off, additional vacation days and shorter work journeys. This shift in organizational paradigms is as important as supporting employees to really enjoy their time-off, leaving aside the impression they need to be “working all the time”.

Further reading

Allan, B. M.; Fryer, R. G. (2011). The power and pitfalls of education incentives. Brookings Institution, Hamilton Project.

Castilla, E. J., & Benard, S. (2010). The paradox of meritocracy in organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 55(4), 543–676.

DeFulio, A., & Silverman, K. (2012). The use of incentives to reinforce medication adherence. Preventive Medicine, 55, 86–94.

Juliano, L. M.; Donny, E. C., Houtsmuller, E. J., & Stitzer, M. L. (2006). Experimental evidence for a causal relationship between smoking lapse and relapse. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 115, 166.

Hur, J. D.; Lee-Yoon, A.; Whillans, A. V. (2021). Are they useful? The effects of performance incentives on the prioritization of work versus personal ties. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 165 (2021) 103–114.

Hur, J. D., & Nordgren, L. F. (2016). Paying for performance: Performance incentives increase desire for the reward object. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111, 301.

Kahneman, D.; Krueger, A. B.; Schkade, D. A.; Schwarz, N.; & Stone, A. A. (2004). A survey method for characterizing daily life experience: The day reconstruction method. Science, 306, 1776–1780.

Lazear, E. P. (2000). Performance pay and productivity. American Economic Review, 90, 1346–1361.

Larkin, I., Pierce, L., & Gino, F. (2012). The psychological costs of pay-for-performance: Implications for the strategic compensation of employees. Strategic Management Journal, 33, 1194–1214.

Mogilner, C. (2010). The pursuit of happiness: Time, money, and social connection. Psychological Science, 21, 1348–1354.

Paul, Sam. (2018). American families barely spend quality time together. Artigo escrito para o New York Post, em 20 de março.

Raczka, R. K. (2021). How bonuses get employees to choose work over family. Artigo escrito para Harvard Business Review, em 29 de novembro.

Whillans, A. V. (2020) Time smart: how to reclaim your time and live a happier life. Harvard Business Review Press.

Acesse aqui a versão em português deste artigo.

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Tiago Rodrigo

Product Manager | Futures Thinker | Behavioral & Data Science