The Journal of Politics


Enforcement and Compliance in an Uncertain World: An Experimental Investigation

Eric S. Dicksona1, Sanford C. Gordona2 and Gregory A. Hubera3

a1 New York University

a2 New York University

a3 Yale University


Governments are charged with monitoring citizens’ compliance with prescribed behavioral standards and punishing noncompliance. Flaws in information available to enforcing agents, however, may lead to subsequent enforcement errors, eroding government authority and undermining incentives for compliance. We explore these concepts in a laboratory experiment. A “monitor” player makes punishment decisions after receiving noisy signals about other players’ choices to contribute to a public good. We find that the possibility of wrongly accusatory signals has a more deleterious effect on contribution levels than the possibility of wrongly exculpatory signals. We trace this across-treatment difference to a “false positives trap”: when members of a largely compliant population are sometimes incorrectly accused, some will be unjustly punished if enforcement power is employed, but non-compliant individuals will escape punishment if that power is abdicated. Either kind of error discourages compliance. An additional treatment demonstrates that the functioning of a given enforcement institution may vary, depending on its origins. We consider implications of our findings for theories of deterrence, fairness, and institutional legitimacy.

(Received February 28 2008)

(Accepted November 22 2008)


Eric S. Dickson is assistant professor of politics, New York University, New York, NY 10012.

Sanford C. Gordon is associate professor of politics, New York University, New York, NY 10012.

Gregory A. Huber is associate professor of political science and ISPS, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520.