Testing the Focal Point Theory of Legal Compliance: The Effect of Third-Party Expression in an Experimental Hawk/Dove Game


*Richard H. McAdams, University of Illinois College of Law, 504 E. Pennsylvania Ave., Champaign, IL 61820; phone: 217-333-4385; email: rmcadams@law.uiuc.edu; Janice Nadler, American Bar Foundation & Northwestern University School of Law, 357 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; phone: 312-503-3228; email: jnadler@northwestern.edu.


Economic theories of legal compliance emphasize legal sanctions, whereas psychological and sociological theories stress the perceived legitimacy of law. Without disputing the importance of either mechanism, we test a third way that law affects behavior, an expressive theory that claims law influences behavior by creating a focal point around which individuals coordinate. We investigated how various forms of third-party “cheap talk” influence the behavior of subjects in a Hawk/Dove or Chicken game. Despite the players’ conflicting interests, we found that messages highlighting an equilibrium tend to produce that outcome. Most striking, this result emerged even when the message was selected by an overtly random, mechanical process. We obtained a similar result when the message was delivered by a third-party subject; the latter effect was significantly stronger than the former only when the subject speaker was selected by a merit-based process. These results suggest that, in certain circumstances, law generates compliance not only by sanctions and legitimacy, but also by facilitating coordination around a focal outcome.