Evolving Contract Schemas

A Meeting of the Minds

A Meeting of the Minds?

With co-authors, I’ve been working on a series of experimental papers about contract law that appear to be converging on a theme: what individuals think “contract” means has purchase in the real-world, and that contractual schema is evolving.

A schema is nothing more than a mental model – a framework – to help us organize and process information. A contract schema is the set of background assumptions that we fill in when we think about a legally operative bargain. For those of us who grew up in a largely off-line world, our contract schema involve “doing the paperwork,” “getting it in writing,” and “signing on the dotted line.” (See this article for details). Indeed although most contracts law professors make fun of the metaphor of the meeting of the minds, it captures a real heuristic for a certain segment of society. That so even though form contracts have been part of modern life since the 50s, and almost none of us ever actually negotiate contracts that could end up in court. Indeed, when I started teaching in 2004, students routinely would say “she signed it, she must be bound to it,” even in cases like Specht.  Since this mental model is quite a ways from the reality of online contract, consumers may think they are in contracts when they aren’t, and visa versa.

But what happens when contracts widely explored in pop culture – and presented to you in your formative years – were never signed, never reduced to writing, never negotiated.  The cheerios arbitration debacle, facebook’s demystified terms, your cellphone contract, your cable company’s impossible-to-escape relationship.  What happens when every time you think “contract,” you don’t call up the mental image of a “signature on vellum” but instead “loki on steroids.”  And when companies, realizing this, increasingly pushed “no contract” plans that were actually contracts, just without penalty clauses attached.

Perhaps citizens born after 1980 will have dramatically different attitudes toward contract than those born before. If that’s true, we’ll increasingly find cohort effects in contracting behavior online, as lay intuitions about how to respond to “contract” increasingly turn on the age of the promisee. For those coming of age offline, “click to agree” calls up memories of signature, and consequently infuses bargains with personal honor; for those born digital, “click to agree” means “nothing good is about to happen to me.” Those attitudes toward contract will play out in behavior – in likelihood to breach, to shirk, and to behave opportunistically.

At some point we expect to have direct evidence worth sharing in support of this argument! For now, I thought start discussion by fast forwarding fifteen years, when many judges born in the digital age will have assumed the bench. What changes in contract doctrine follow from changes in contract’s schema? Then again, will there be any contract cases left to decide, or will they all been sucked into arbitration’s black hole?


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