Incentive spillovers in the workplace: Evidence from two field experiments

Erwin Bulte, John A. List*, Daan van Soest

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Incomplete contracts are the rule rather than the exception, and any incentive scheme faces the risk of improving performance on incented aspects of a task at the detriment of performance on non-incented aspects. Recent research documents the effect of loss-framed versus gain-framed incentives on incentivized behavior, but how do such incentives affect overall performance? We explore potential trade-offs by conducting field experiments in an artificial “workplace”. We explore two types of incentive spillovers: those contemporaneous to the incented task and those subsequent to the incented task. We report three main results. First, consonant with the extant literature, a loss aversion incentive induces greater effort on the incented task. Second, offsetting this productivity gain, we find that the quality of work decreases if quality is not specified in the incentive contract. Third, we find no evidence of harmful spillover effects to subsequent tasks; if anything, the loss aversion incentive induces more effort in subsequent tasks. Taken together, our results highlight that measuring and accounting for incentive spillovers are important when considering their overall impact.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)137-149
JournalJournal of Economic Behavior and Organization
Early online date12 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2021


  • Field experiment
  • Labor productivity
  • Loss aversion
  • Nudge
  • Spillovers


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