Making Talk Cheap (and Problems Easy): How Legal and Political Institutions Can Facilitate Consensus


  • This article was presented at the Conference on Empirical Legal Studies at the University of Southern California, 2009. We are grateful to Paul Zak, Oliver Goodenough, and Matthew Spitzer for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.

Nicholas Weller, University of Southern California, Department of Political Science and School of International Relations, Von KleinSmid Ctr., 327, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0044; email: Boudreau is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Davis; McCubbins is Provost Professor of Business, Law and Political Economy, Marshall School of Business, Gould School of Law, and Department of Political Science at the University of Southern California; Rodriguez is Minerva House Drysdale Regents Chair in Law at the University of Texas at Austin; Weller is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California.


In many legal, political, and social settings, people must reach a consensus before particular outcomes can be achieved and failing to reach a consensus may be costly. In this article, we present a theory and conduct experiments that take into account the costs associated with communicating, as well as the difficulty of the decisions that groups make. We find that when there is even a small cost (relative to the potential benefit) associated with sending information to others and/or listening, groups are much less likely to reach a consensus, primarily because they are less willing to communicate with one another. We also find that difficult problems significantly reduce group members’ willingness to communicate with one another and, therefore, hinder their ability to reach a consensus.