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My former law professor penned a fascinating article for Slate that touches on the Coase theorem, endowment effects, and social norms.

I’m sharing it here because I think the article has some amazing nuggets on how to get the guy in front of you not to recline your seat.

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My last Allegiant flight, this guy on the left is praying no one reclines

The last few times I’ve flown economy, I got my own row or ponied up for Allegiant’s Giant Seats, but the next time I’m not so lucky, I may try one of these moves.

Basically these two law professors set up some online questionnaires and asked people:

  • How much would you pay the person in front of you not to recline if they have the right to recline?
  • How much would you pay to recline if the person behind you had the right not to be reclined upon?
  • If someone offered you $X, would you abstain from reclining? What if they offered to buy you a drink or snack that costs $X?

The results were fascinating, and I think I’m going to be having a conversation with the person in front of me on my upcoming economy flights. (I’ve got eight (!) coming up in the next six weeks, which will definitely be the most economy I’ve flown since I flew around Europe to a different country every day for a week.)

  • How much do people value reclining?
  • How can you get them not to recline on you?

Background

The Coase Theorem says that if people can freely bargain, then it doesn’t matter who is initially assigned a right, the person who values it more will acquire it.

Translation: Whether reclining is initially allowed or prohibited doesn’t matter as long as you can talk to the person in front of or behind you and strike a deal about whether you will recline.

In real life, the endowment effect has been noted over and over as a counterpoint to the Coase Theorem. People value something they own more than they would if someone else owned the same thing.

Translation: Whether reclining is allowed or not before bargaining matters a lot.

The study found the endowment effect was very strong. People valued the ability to recline quite a bit more when it was allowed and valued preventing reclining a lot more when reclining was prohibited. From the article:

“In an online survey, we asked people to imagine that they were about to take a six-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles. We told them that the airline had created a new policy that would allow people to pay those seated in front of them to not recline their seats. We asked one group of subjects to tell us the least amount of money that they would be willing to accept to not recline during the flight. And we asked another group of subjects to tell us the most amount of money that they would pay to prevent the person in front of them from not reclining.

…Recliners wanted on average $41 to refrain from reclining, while reclinees were willing to pay only $18 on average. Only about 21 percent of the time would ownership of the 4 inches change hands.

…When we flipped the default—that is, when we made the rule that people did not have an automatic right to recline, but would have to negotiate to get it—then people’s values suddenly reversed. Now, recliners were only willing to pay about $12 to recline while reclinees were unwilling to sell their knee room for less than $39. Recliners would have ended up purchasing the right to recline only about 28 percent of the time—the same right that they valued so highly in the other condition.”

How to Get the Person in Front of You Not to Recline

Some airlines have installed economy seats that cannot recline. On all other airlines, it is your right to recline. It’s also the right of the guy in front of you to recline. What if you want to stop him from crunching your knees?

Forget the average figure of $41 people claimed they would need to be paid in order not to recline on a six hour flight.

From the article:

“In another online survey, we asked subjects whether they would be willing to lean forward and offer the person sitting in front of them $8 to not recline during a six-hour flight, and we asked another group whether they would accept such an offer. More than 68 percent of our front-seaters told us that they would either accept the $8 and not recline, or agree not to recline without taking the $8, just because they were asked.

And you can get an even better acceptance rate by not flashing the cash:

“For yet another group of subjects, we substituted the $8 in cash with an offer of a drink or snack (these cost approximately $8 on many U.S. airlines). In that case…78 percent of front-seaters were willing to accept it.”

So there you have it, 78% of people claim they would not recline on a six-hour flight in exchange for a drink or a snack that is only going to run you about $6 to $10.

The article notes that very few people claimed they would be comfortable offering the person in front of them this deal. But I would.

Do you think on my next flight, an eight-hour redeye from Honolulu to Chicago in economy, I should politely tap the person in front of me on the shoulder and say:

“If you’ll refrain from reclining, I’ll buy you the drink or snack of your choice. I know this is a weird offer, and please decline it if you’d rather recline–no hard feelings.”

I’m willing to do it if you guys think it’s worth a shot.

Would you accept my offer not to recline? Would you ever make the offer to the person in front of you?


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