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Contracts as Reference Points - Experimental Evidence

  • Ernst Fehr
  • Oliver D. Hart
  • Christian Zehnder

In a recent paper, Hart and Moore (2008) introduce new behavioral assumptions that can explain long-term contracts and important aspects of the employment relation. However, so far there exists no direct evidence that supports these assumptions and, in particular, Hart and Moore's notion that contracts provide reference points. In this paper, we examine experimentally the behavioral forces stipulated in their theory. The evidence confirms the model's prediction that there is a tradeoff between rigidity and flexibility in a trading environment with incomplete contracts and ex ante uncertainty about the state of nature. Flexible contracts - which would dominate rigid contracts under standard assumptions - cause a significant amount of shading on ex post performance, while under rigid contracts, much less shading occurs. Thus, although rigid contracts rule out trading in some states of the world, parties frequently implement them. While our results are broadly consistent with established behavioral concepts, they cannot easily be explained by existing theories. The experiment appears to reveal a new behavioral force: ex ante competition legitimizes the terms of a contract, and aggrievement and shading occur mainly about outcomes within the contract.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 14501.

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Date of creation: Nov 2008
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Publication status: published as Ernst Fehr & Oliver Hart & Christian Zehnder, 2009. "Contracts, Reference Points, and Competition-Behavioral Effects of The Fundamental Transformation," Journal of the European Economic Association, MIT Press, vol. 7(2-3), pages 561-572, 04-05.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:14501
Note: CF LE
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  1. Gary Charness & Matthew Rabin, 2002. "Understanding Social Preferences With Simple Tests," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 117(3), pages 817-869, August.
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