Deadlines and Cognitive Limitations

52 Pages Posted: 24 Jan 2018

See all articles by Steffen Altmann

Steffen Altmann

University of Copenhagen; IZA Institute of Labor Economics; University of Duisburg-Essen

Christian Traxler

Hertie School; CESifo (Center for Economic Studies and Ifo Institute)

Philipp Weinschenk

University of Kaiserslautern; Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods

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Date Written: December 05, 2017


This paper studies the interplay between deadlines and cognitive limitations. We analyze an agent’s decision to complete a one-off task under a deadline. Postponing the task can be beneficial for the agent; missing the deadline, however, leads to a drop in the agent’s rewards. If the agent exhibits cognitive limitations, postponing increases the risk of becoming inattentive and failing to complete the task in time. Our framework provides a rich set of predictions on the behavioral implications of deadlines. We test these predictions in a field experiment at a dental clinic, in which we exogenously vary deadlines and rewards for arranging check-up appointments. The empirical results underline the behavioral relevance of cognitive limitations. Imposing relatively tight deadlines induces patients to act earlier and at a persistently higher frequency than without a deadline. Evidence from a follow-up experiment and complementary surveys supports the notion that deadlines may serve as a powerful instrument when individuals’ cognitive capacity is limited.

Keywords: deadlines, cognitive limitations, limited memory, field experiment

JEL Classification: C930, D030, D910

Suggested Citation

Altmann, Steffen and Traxler, Christian and Weinschenk, Philipp, Deadlines and Cognitive Limitations (December 05, 2017). CESifo Working Paper Series No. 6761, Available at SSRN: or

Steffen Altmann

University of Copenhagen ( email )

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Christian Traxler (Contact Author)

Hertie School ( email )

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Philipp Weinschenk

University of Kaiserslautern ( email )

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Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods ( email )

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