Peer effects on worker output in the laboratory generalize to the field

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Science  30 Oct 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6260, pp. 545-549
DOI: 10.1126/science.aac9555

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Comparing lab and field estimates

What do Swiss high-school students and Eastern European seasonal laborers have in common? When the former are tasked with stuffing questionnaires into envelopes in a classroom setting and the latter are employed to pick fruit in the United Kingdom, both work harder in the presence of their peers. Herbst and Mas reanalyzed the results of 35 such studies, either experiments carried out under controlled conditions or empirical studies based on data collected in the field (see the Perspective by Charness and Fehr). Encouragingly, they found that the magnitude of the spillover effect—how much harder a worker works when other workers are alongside—was the same.

Science, this issue p. 545; see also p. 512


We compare estimates of peer effects on worker output in laboratory experiments and field studies from naturally occurring environments. The mean study-level estimate of a change in a worker’s productivity in response to an increase in a co-worker’s productivity (γ) is Embedded Image = 0.12 (SE = 0.03, nstudies = 34), with a between-study standard deviation τ = 0.16. The mean estimated Embedded Image-values are close between laboratory and field studies (Embedded Image = 0.04, P = 0.55, nlab = 11, nfield = 23), as are estimates of between-study variance τ2 (Embedded Image, P = 0.89). The small mean difference between laboratory and field estimates holds even after controlling for sample characteristics such as incentive schemes and work complexity (Embedded Image = 0.03, P = 0.62, nsamples = 46). Laboratory experiments generalize quantitatively in that they provide an accurate description of the mean and variance of productivity spillovers.

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