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Using a natural field experiment to test the theory of multitasking

  • Fuhai Hong
  • John List
  • Migiwa Tanaka
  • Tanjim Hossain

A well-recognized problem in the multitasking literature is that workers might substantially reduce their effort on tasks that produce unobservable outputs as they seek the salient rewards to observable outputs. Since the theory related to multitasking is decades ahead of the empirical evidence, the economic costs of standard incentive schemes under multitasking contexts remain largely unknown. This study provides empirical insights quantifying such effects using a field experiment in Chinese factories. Using more than 2200 data points across 126 workers, we find sharp evidence that workers do trade off the incented output (quantity) at the expense of the non-incented one (quality) as a result of a piece rate bonus scheme. Consistent with our theoretical model, treatment effects are much stronger for workers whose base salary structure is a flat wage compared to those under a piece rate base salary. While the incentives result in a large increase in quantity and a sharp decrease in quality for workers under a flat base salary, they result only in a small increase in quantity without affecting quality for workers under a piece rate base salary.

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Paper provided by The Field Experiments Website in its series Natural Field Experiments with number 00388.

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Date of creation: 2013
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:feb:natura:00388
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  1. Dumont, Etienne & Fortin, Bernard & Jacquemet, Nicolas & Shearer, Bruce, 2008. "Physicians' multitasking and incentives: Empirical evidence from a natural experiment," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 27(6), pages 1436-1450, December.
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  3. Tanjim Hossain & John A. List, 2012. "The Behavioralist Visits the Factory: Increasing Productivity Using Simple Framing Manipulations," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 58(12), pages 2151-2167, December.
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  6. Oriana Bandiera & Iwan Barankay & Imran Rasul, 2005. "Social Preferences and the Response to Incentives: Evidence from Personnel Data," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 120(3), pages 917-962, August.
  7. Susan Feng Lu, 2012. "Multitasking, Information Disclosure, and Product Quality: Evidence from Nursing Homes," Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 21(3), pages 673-705, 09.
  8. Uri Gneezy & John A. List, 2006. "Putting Behavioral Economics to Work: Testing for Gift Exchange in Labor Markets Using Field Experiments," NBER Working Papers 12063, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  18. Rachel Griffith & Andrew Neely, 2009. "Performance Pay and Managerial Experience in Multitask Teams: Evidence from within a Firm," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 27(1), pages 49-82, 01.
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