Intuitions About Contract Formation

Why did our subjects sometimes behave like 19th century legal formalists, and other times like realists from the Wisconsin School of relational contract theory?

Tess Wilkinson-Ryan and I have a new paper up on SSRN, titled Intuitions About Contract Formation.  In the great Redyip tradition, I thought I’d blog about it. From the abstract:

Legally, much depends on the moment that a negotiation becomes a deal.  Unlike torts or civil procedure or any area of public law, the laws of  promissory exchange only apply to parties who have manifested their assent to be bound. Even so, the moral norms of exchange and promise are quite firmly  entrenched and more broadly applicable than just legal contracts. Norms of promise-keeping and reciprocity, interpersonal courtesy, community reputation—these kinds of intangible goods have real effects on contract behavior. For this reason it is especially surprising that intuitions about formation have gotten so little attention from legal and behavioral scholars. This paper offers five new empirical studies of commonsense approaches to contract formation. The first section of this Article surveys intuitions about what the law of formation is. In a world in which the vast majority of contracts are signed without the advice of counsel, most people have to draw inferences based on their background knowledge and beliefs. It turns out that the colloquial understanding of contract formation is about the formalization of an agreement rather than actual assent.

In the second part of the Article, we tease out the intuitive relationship between formation and obligation. The law of contracts is very clear that  parties’ obligations to one another turn entirely on whether or not they have mutually manifested assent to be bound. And, in fact, we find that behavioral results suggest that legal (or legalistic) formation does enhance commitment to a deal irrespective of its power to impose sanctions; it seems that the law has freestanding normative force. However, we also find that the subjective sense of obligation is not as black or white as the law would predict. Parties are influenced by the natural, informal obligations to one another that build over the course of a transaction, increasing their commitment to the partnership in stages rather than all at once at the moment of formation.

To set the paper up a bit, Tess and I had previously found that when subjects are told they are in legally binding contracts, they lower their guard against exploitation & treat contracting parties like partners.  This raised a question that Intuitions tries to answer:  what are subjects’ naive views about formation?  We show that they differ systematically from the operative doctrinal rules, which creates a window for exploitation — when consumers believe themselves to be in contracts but aren’t. For example, individuals think that payment is contract, not agreement.  In one experiment, for example, we asked:

“Peter is ordering new custom speakers from Audionuts, a mail-order sound system retailer. Peter calls the company and speaks at length to a customer service representative, hashing out the details of his order, which include speakers for his main media unit (TV and stereo system) as well as his portable devices (phone and iPad). Peter and the customer service representative arrive at a final product specification, including a price and delivery date. Peter gives the rep his credit card number, and the charge is immediately posted to his account. Eight days later, Peter receives his speakers in the mail. Inside the box is a piece of paper headed “Terms and Conditions.” The Terms and Conditions sheet includes information about the duration of the warranty (90 days), the dispute resolution process (mandatory arbitration) and the return policy (return within 14 days for full refund for any reason). The Terms and Conditions sheet states at the bottom, “If you do not agree to these terms and conditions, please return the product within 14 days for a full refund.” Peter uses the speakers with no problems for two months.”


Note: payment & acceptance without return dominate over the oral agreement, or reading terms.  (Other experiments replicate this finding on payment, and expand it to signature.)

At the same time, we find that, in the absence of information about law or legal rules, individuals tend to begin to act like partners significantly earlier than the moment where they’ve concluded a deal.  Indeed, a mere offer appears to motivate feelings of reciprocity by the offeree. Why did our subjects sometimes behave like 19th century legal formalists, and other times like realists from the Wisconsin School of relational contract theory? Our tentative conclusion is that subjects themselves draw a distinction between legal and moral obligations. They view their legal obligations as heavily dependent on formal manifestation of assent via signature. But their moral obligations are attendant to both legal formalism and also to more fine-grained moral norms. This is an interesting case in which we see some evidence of a legal context, contract, in which moral norms are not entirely determined by legal norms. But when subjects are told that they are in a contract, in a sense it makes it so.


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