Some data on the value of the airplane seat recline right

Christopher Buccafusco and Chris Sprigman report:

…we ran an experiment to measure how much people value the ability to recline compared to extra knee and laptop room.

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.

It turns out that Barro was right: 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.

But it also turns out that Barro was wrong and Marron was right. 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.

Wait … what? How is it possible that people’s valuation of reclining vs. not being reclined upon depended so completely on which party (recliner or reclinee) held initial ownership of the property right? Shouldn’t the right to recline be worth the same to you whether you initially have it or not?

It is fair to call this an endowment effect, but I also view it as evidence for my earlier view that people do not want to bargain over this right.

For the pointer I thank Tim Harford.


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