Transferring Trust: Reciprocity Norms and Assignment of Contract

Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Forthcoming

41 Pages Posted: 14 Jan 2012

Date Written: January 13, 2012


This paper presents four experiments testing the prediction that assignment of contract rights erodes the moral obligation to perform. The first three studies used an experimental laboratory game designed to model contractual exchange. Players in the games were less selfish with a previously-generous partner than with third-party player who had purchased the right to the original partner’s expected return. The fourth study used a web-based questionnaire, and found that subjects reported that they would require less financial incentive to breach an assigned contract than a contract held by the original promisee. The results of these four experiments provide support for the proposition that a permissible and apparently neutral transfer of a contractual right may nonetheless reduce the likelihood or quality of performance by weakening the norm of reciprocity.

Keywords: contract, psychology, assignment, reciprocity

Suggested Citation

Wilkinson-Ryan, Tess, Transferring Trust: Reciprocity Norms and Assignment of Contract (January 13, 2012). Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

Tess Wilkinson-Ryan (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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