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Crying Over Spilt Milk: Sunk Costs, Fairness Norms and the Hold-Up Problem


  • Jeffrey Carpenter


  • Peter Hans Matthews



This paper explores a possible connection between two behavioral anomalies in economics, the observed responsiveness of individual decision-makers to sunk costs, and the apparent failure of backward induction to predict outcomes in experimental bargaining games. In particular, we show that under some conditions, a "sunk cost sensitive" fairness norm can evolve in such environments. Under this norm, a fair distribution allows all parties to recoup whatever each has invested in their relationship before the net surplus is then divided into equal shares. The establishment of such a norm would have important consequences for the hold-up problem, which we characterize in terms of ultimatum bargaining in the presence of an outside option. We then conclude with a brief discussion of the possible labor market implications of our results.

Suggested Citation

  • Jeffrey Carpenter & Peter Hans Matthews, 2003. "Crying Over Spilt Milk: Sunk Costs, Fairness Norms and the Hold-Up Problem," Middlebury College Working Paper Series 0312, Middlebury College, Department of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:mdl:mdlpap:0312

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Kaufmann, Daniel & Kraay, Aart & Zoido-Lobaton, Pablo, 1999. "Governance matters," Policy Research Working Paper Series 2196, The World Bank.
    2. Johnson, Simon & Kaufmann, Daniel & Zoido-Lobaton, Pablo, 1998. "Regulatory Discretion and the Unofficial Economy," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 88(2), pages 387-392, May.
    3. Friedman, Eric & Johnson, Simon & Kaufmann, Daniel & Zoido-Lobaton, Pablo, 2000. "Dodging the grabbing hand: the determinants of unofficial activity in 69 countries," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 76(3), pages 459-493, June.
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    More about this item


    sunk costs; norms; fairness; trust; hold-up problem; human capital;

    JEL classification:

    • C78 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Game Theory and Bargaining Theory - - - Bargaining Theory; Matching Theory
    • J41 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Particular Labor Markets - - - Labor Contracts

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