Published on Development Impact

This job is not for me: measuring the impact of identity on job preference. Guest post by Suanna Oh

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This is the twelfth in this year’s series of posts by PhD students on the job market

Identity and social image are powerful motivators of human behavior. People care about "who they are," both in their own view (identity) and in the perception of others (social image). Concerns about upholding identity and social image can influence individual behaviors and market outcomes in important ways. Studies that explore this—nascent in economics and long-standing in other social sciences—suggest that people sometimes avoid otherwise desirable opportunities due to these image concerns. For example, people often say that they will not work in certain jobs because the work would be beneath them or otherwise embarrassing. But to what extent do people actually turn down jobs because of image concerns? And, if this is happening, what are the implications for efficiency in the labor market?

These are difficult questions to answer. While image concerns could plausibly cause some groups to prefer certain occupations, groups also differ along many dimensions, including training and outside options. For example, even if some people belonging to the Brahmin caste (considered a high caste in India) said they do not like a certain job because it is for other castes, their preference could also be driven by their distaste for working with colleagues who are not Brahmin, lack of experience relevant for the job, and so on. I tackle these questions in my job market paper using unique features of the Indian caste system and provide the first experimental test of how image concerns affect job preference. Offering one-day jobs to workers interested in temporary work in rural Odisha, India, I show that image concerns have a large negative impact on workers’ willingness to take up certain jobs. My findings indicate that identity is a constraint on labor supply at least in this setting, causing workers to avoid certain jobs despite their potential returns.

Designing an experiment on identity and social image

Social theories on identity posit that it can motivate people to avoid performing jobs or tasks that are associated with social groups different from their own (e.g. Burke and Stets 2009). Such effects may be stronger if the social groups associated with the jobs are perceived as having relatively lower social status (Tajfel and Turner 1979). In addition, individuals seek to avoid violating internal rules of behavior (Akerlof and Kranton 2000, Bénabou and Tirole 2011). Spending even very small amounts of time on an identity-inconsistent task could be an unacceptable violation.

Motivated by these ideas, I examine people’s reactions to jobs that involve spending only a little bit of time on tasks that are associated with specific social groups. A rural labor market in Odisha, India, provides a setting with the right features. Caste constitutes a central part of people’s identity, and the social hierarchy of castes is widely recognized. In addition, castes have historical links to specific occupations, and these links often extend to simple tasks associated with those occupations. Before the experiment, I ran two surveys to establish the connections between castes and tasks and also the ranking of seven castes selected for the experiment.

The experiment elicited 630 workers’ willingness to take up job offers that involved spending some time on different tasks. All offers involved working on a default manufacturing task and an additional task for a total of five hours and provided the same fixed wage. The additional task varied across offers, was to be performed in private, and differed in its caste association (associated with own-, higher-, or lower-caste; or unassociated). The time allotted to the additional task could be as much as ninety minutes, or as little as ten minutes. Workers evaluated 32 different offers (involving 8 kinds of additional tasks and 4 time variations) and were asked to choose whether to take up each one as if it were a single, take-it-or-leave-it offer. At the end of this elicitation, one offer was randomly selected for each worker. If the worker had agreed to take up the offer, the worker could complete the job to receive the promised wage.

Many workers turned down job offers that required spending just 10 minutes on caste-inconsistent tasks

I compare the take-up rates of offers involving "identity tasks" (tasks associated with specific castes, i.e. washing clothes, mending leather shoes, and sweeping latrine floors) to those involving paired control tasks (involving similar skills as the above but without any caste associations, i.e. washing farming tools, mending floor mats, and sweeping animal sheds). The figure below plots the average take-up rates of job offers against the time required on additional tasks. The flatness of the lines shows that take-up rates vary little with spending additional time on tasks.

average take-up rates of job offers against the time required on additional tasks

When a worker’s own caste is closely associated with an identity task, the take-up rate of the identity task is similar to the take-up rate of the paired control task involving similar skills (blue lines have similar heights across panels). However, when identity tasks do not match the worker’s own caste, the take-up rate is lower than is observed in the control counterpart. In addition, take-up is much lower when the associated caste has a lower relative rank. The take-up rate of the identity task is 23 pp lower even when its associated caste ranks higher than the workers’ caste (green line) and 47 pp lower when the associated caste ranks relatively lower (red line).

To determine whether concerns about social image as opposed to identity could explain the effects on take-up, I randomized whether or not workers’ decisions were publicized to their neighbors. I find similar effects on take-up across these privacy treatments, which suggests that identity is the main driver of these effects. A likely explanation is that workers are intrinsically motivated by their caste identity to refuse certain offers even before considering social consequences. This is in line with workers’ responses in a follow-up survey, which frequently cite feelings of shame or caste-related rules as the reasons for turning down offers.

Many workers refused to do caste-inconsistent tasks for 10 minutes even when offered 10 times their daily wage

I ran a supplementary experiment to quantify the wage that workers would be willing to forego in order to avoid engaging in caste-inconsistent tasks. Workers were hired for a one-day job working on a default manufacturing task. Then they were unexpectedly given a chance to switch to a different task for part of the remaining working time. Similar to the first experiment, switching offers could involve the identity tasks or the paired control tasks. In addition, switching offers could provide a bonus wage in addition to the default wage. Workers could refuse these offers to continue with their original arrangement. 43% of workers refused a bonus worth 10 times their daily wage in order to avoid spending 10 minutes on tasks associated with other castes. This rate is 29 pp larger compared to when offers involved the paired control tasks. Again, the effect is invariant to whether or not workers’ decisions were publicized.

Economic implications

My findings indicate that identity constrains labor supply among Indian laborers, causing these workers to avoid certain jobs even at large economic costs. The failure to pursue jobs due to concerns about identity is one part of the broader issue of the misallocation of talent (Hsieh et al. 2019). This could have implications for the aggregate productivity of India where almost half of the rural population is still engaged in traditional occupations, as well as other countries where some jobs are strongly associated with certain social groups (Chakraborty et al. 2016).

Suanna Oh is a Ph.D. candidate in Economics at Columbia University.

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