Status Quo Bias and Voluntary Contributions: Can Lab Experiments Parallel Real World Outcomes for Generic Advertising?

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This paper exploits a unique opportunity to test parallelism between the field and laboratory for the Voluntary Contribution Mechanism (VCM). Most commodities in the United States have checkoff programs assessing producers for generic advertising and promotion, a public good for producers. Examples include: Got Milk? and the Incredible Edible Egg. Originally, participation in many of these programs used the VCM and the freeriding observed follows a similar pattern to that seen in the laboratory by experimental economists. For example, a substantial amount of historical information is available for the egg industry’s generic advertising program. We simulate both the economic and psychological details of this industry in a parallelism experiment. The results over eleven rounds of the VCM conducted in the laboratory are strikingly similar to the real-world results for the American Egg Board’s program from 1977 to 1988. We also replicate the positive vote in favor of a mandatory program to replace the VCM that occurred in 1988. All commodity checkoff programs today are mandatory. Yet the constitutionality of mandatory checkoff programs has recently been challenged on the grounds that mandatory programs violate individual producer’s free speech rights under the First Amendment. In light of this legal uncertainty, this paper explores the feasibility of using a voluntary provision point mechanism (PPM) which closely follows the institutional design of the VCM and mandatory programs used by the egg industry. Our results suggest that although the PPM performs better than the VCM, both mechanisms in this institutional setting yield far higher levels of contributions than those obtained in prior research. Thus, the research next explores why the levels of giving observed for generic advertising are higher than traditionally observed in the lab. Our results suggest that the institutional design employed by the American Egg Board and others where assessments were collected first and then having producers request refunds afterwards, established a social norm, or reference point, which leads to higher levels of contributions through status quo bias. This bias appears to increase contributions in both the VCM and PPM. However, this effect decreases over rounds as contributions still appear to converge to the Nash equilibrium of zero contributions in the case of the VCM and to the particular Nash equilibrium of just covering costs of the provision point in the PPM.

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NICPRE 04-03; R.B. 2004-03


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Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University


Applied Economics


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