Able but Unwilling to Enforce: Cooperative Dilemmas in Group Lending.

Sabin, Nicholas, & Felix Reed-Tsochas. (2020).

American Journal of Sociology. 125 (6): 1602-1667. Site PDF

It is known that greater social cohesion increases a group’s ability to enforce cooperation. Despite this, defectors often go unpunished, and groups with social structures that are a priori favorable often fail. A critical distinction is required between the structural effect on ability versus willingness to punish. The authors develop a theoretical framework in which variation in a group’s social structure generates a tension between ability and willingness to enforce cooperation. Structures that promote ability to punish also often reduce interest in carrying out sanctions, thus changing collective outcomes. The authors’ empirical analysis involves a well-defined cooperative dilemma: group lending in Sierra Leone. They complement statistical modeling, based on a data set containing 5,487 group repayments,with ethnographic analysis. They find that (1) structural cohesion only increases economic cooperation between borrowers to a point, beyond which unwillingness outweighs increased ability to punish, reducing group repayments, and that (2) groups with disconnected subgroups perform worse on average. Although borrowers are more willing to punish defectors in the out-subgroup, they are unable to do so effectively.

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The Cognitive Effects of Economic Scarcity on Decision Making in Chile. 

Principal Investigator: Sabin, Nicholas. (2020-2023).

Research Grant awarded by the National Agency for Research and Development (ANID).

Fondecyt de Iniciación en Investigación. ($83,000,000 CLP). Site

Research has identified a 'scarcity mindset' as systematically affecting economic decision-making. This mindset occurs when people feel resources are low relative to needs. A scarcity mindset may occur chronically, for example when a single parent consistently does not have enough money to pay the bills, or it may occur acutely in a specific circumstance, for example in the current crisis of COVID-19 many citizens worry about access to basic food and supplies. To date, the scarcity mindset has been linked to economic decision making in terms of increased risk aversion, increased temporal discounting, and decreased cognitive function. We intend to explore how a scarcity mindset affects a different aspect of decision making: prosocial behavior. This topic is of significant interest given the central role of social interaction and cooperation in a well-functioning society. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of accurately modelling social behavior in a crisis situation. If we can better understand when economic scarcity may trigger irrational decisions, we would be more able to help ourselves and others make deliberate decisions for the public good. 


Choosing Partners: Selection Priorities in Joint Liability Group Formation.
Sabin, Nicholas. (Working paper upon request).

Joint liability credit groups are often formed through a self-selection process.  The choice of partner presents complex tradeoffs between behavioral expectations, risk diversification, monitoring, and enforcement. Most prior studies have found partner selection to be non-optimal financially.  In this study, we explore economic, social, spatial, and demographic factors that may be driving the selection process. A unique analytical approach is used based on the selection order of partners in joint liability groups.  We decompose a group leader’s sequence of partner invitations into a series of ranked choices.  The results indicate that socially and spatially proximate members are likely to be prioritized in the selection process, even though other potential members may possess stronger financial traits, such as higher monthly sales or business equity.  There is also evidence of early selection based on gender, marital status, children, and matching business type. The analysis suggests that partner selection may be driven by social incentives and the avoidance of strategic default.  More broadly, this study suggests which factors are prioritized when actors have choice over whom to partner with in a social dilemma.

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The Decay of Economic Cooperation Over Time.
Sabin, Nicholas, & Felix Reed-Tsochas. (Working paper upon request).

This study explores the evolution of economic cooperation in small groups. Over the last three decades, laboratory experiments have distinguished numerous causal mechanisms that can give rise to cooperation. However, such studies are often limited in terms of their ecological relevance. In this paper we review these findings and explore their validity in the real-world setting of microfinance. Group lending, in which a small group of borrowers are jointly liable for repaying a loan, gives rise to a natural cooperative dilemma. The empirical analysis involves 7,025 borrowers involved in 47,931 group repayment transactions over the time period from 2005 to 2011. Though the microfinance context is conducive to many of the structural, strategic, and motivational mechanisms documented in the experimental literature, we make the observation that group contribution and group effort rates consistently decline over time. This trend occurs despite selective retention of better performing groups by the microfinance institution. As aggregate cooperation rates decline, variance across groups also increases, suggesting that stable cooperation rates have not been reached. We argue that the mechanisms of mental framing, learning, and reduced willingness to punish, help explain why cooperation decreases over years of repeated interaction. These findings enhance the broader study of cooperation by identifying the most salient factors underlying a decline in group contribution and effort rates in a large, real-world dataset.  

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Microfinance: A Field in Flux.

Sabin, Nicholas. (2015).

Social Finance. Editors: Nicholls, Alex, Paton, Rob, & Jed Emerson.

(First Edition, 156-184). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Site PDF

Financial access for poor and low-income clients has expanded dramatically over the last four decades. This chapter provides an overview of the microfinance landscape and highlights key debates within the field. The market structure is shifting, with organizations increasingly accessing commercial funding. Some geographic markets have overheated, producing substantial criticism. Recent impact evaluations are raising questions about what microfinance actually can and should attempt to achieve. Even the basic offering is being rethought in terms of products and services that may better suit the needs of the poor. This changing landscape is placed in its historical context, noting key predecessors and how the microfinance movement began and grew to its present form. Contrasting perspectives are structured around three ongoing debates: the critical features of modern microfinance, the appropriate role of commercialization, and the assessment of microfinance’s impact. The chapter concludes with implications for the broader field of social finance.

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