Multitasking, Learning, and Incentives: A Cautionary Tale
We develop a multi-period, multi-task principal-agent model in which neither the principal nor the agent knows the mapping from actions to outputs. The agent can learn about the production function over time by exerting effort and observing output. The model has a stark prediction: incentives may have a negative impact on agent effort if, by exerting effort, they learn their ability is lower than their prior beliefs. To provide evidence on the model’s predictions, we conduct a field experiment in fifty Houston public schools, where students, parents, and teachers were rewarded with financial incentives. The experimental data is consistent with the model’s most distinguishing predictions, though other explanations are possible.
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An online appendix is available for this publication.
This paper was revised on May 10, 2013