Coordinating in the Shadow of the Law: Two Contextualized Tests of the Focal Point Theory of Legal Compliance


  • This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (#0351530) and the American Bar Foundation.

Please address correspondence to Richard H. McAdams, University of Chicago Law School, 1111 E. 60th Street, Chicago, IL 60637; e-mail:; or Janice Nadler, American Bar Foundation and Northwestern University School of Law, 357 E. Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail:


In situations where people have an incentive to coordinate their behavior, law can provide a framework for understanding and predicting what others are likely to do. According to the focal point theory of legal compliance, the law's articulation of a behavior can sometimes create self-fulfilling expectations that it will occur. Existing theories of legal compliance emphasize the effect of sanctions or legitimacy; we argue that, in addition to sanctions and legitimacy, law can also influence compliance simply by making one outcome salient. We tested this claim in two experiments where sanctions and legitimacy were held constant. Experiment 1 demonstrated that a mandatory legal rule operating in a property dispute influenced compliance only when there was an element of coordination. Experiment 2 demonstrated that a default rule in a contract negotiation acted as a focal point for coordinating negotiation decisions. Both experiments confirm that legal rules can create a focal point around which people tend to coordinate.