Behavioural Science
The Economics Of Reclining Your Seat

Frequent travelers will be familiar with the eternal dilemma of whether or not to recline your seat on a plane. Some are of the opinion that paying for the seat gives you the right to, while others feel it is kinder to the person behind to keep your seat upright. A recent spate of “recline rage” forced several flights to make unscheduled stops to resolve disputes over the four inches of space. This prompted economists Christopher Buccafusco and Chris Sprigman to ask: who should that space belong to, and does the happiness gained by the recliner exceed the unhappiness inflicted on the reclinee?

The answer, it appears, is heavily influenced by the “endowment effect”, where the perceived value is much higher for the person allocated the right to the space by default. This was demonstrated in the classic 1990 study by Daniel Kahneman, Jack L. Knetsch, and Richard Thaler. In the experiment, students who were allocated mugs valued them much more highly than the mug-less students, who were asked how much they would pay for one. In an online survey, Buccafusco and Sprigman found that the person behind would be willing to pay the person in front $18 not to recline, while the recliner would not accept less than $41 to relinquish their right to recline. However, when it was framed as paying for this right, with the person behind selling the space, this effect reversed; the person behind now wanted $39, while the recliner would only pay $12 for the privilege. The influence of the default option remained even when participants had to consider the problem bilaterally, both as a recliner and a person to be reclined upon.

Interestingly, people seem to be averse to creating a monetised transaction of the situation, and were in fact more likely to agree not to recline, and to ask the person in front not to recline, when the incentive offered would be a gift of a drink or a snack rather than a cash amount of equivalent value. This may be related to evidence that monetary incentives can “crowd out” altruistic motives; for example blood donation, where offering a cash reward reduces the number of people donating. Perhaps people would happily not recline if the person behind them asked nicely, based on purely altruistic motives, whereas money changes the nature of the transaction.

As the jury is still out on who it belongs to, think carefully next time you’re on a plane about whether you need that extra four inches—or at least offer the person behind you a drink before you encroach on their personal space.


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