RECENT RESEARCH PAPERS

(Note that the full list of my publications is in my CV. This page lists only recent working papers, forthcoming and recently published papers.)

China's Sex Ratio and Crime: Behavioral Change or Financial Necessity? (with X. Meng and D. Zhang). July 2016. Under submission.

This paper uses survey and experimental data from prison inmates and comparable non-inmates to examine the drivers of rising criminality in China. Consistent with socio-biological research on other species, we find that China's high sex-ratios are associated with greater risk-taking and impatience amongst males. These underlying behavioral impacts explain some part of the increase in criminality. The primary avenue through which the sex-ratio increases crime, however, is the direct pressure on men to appear financially attractive in order to find a partner in the marriage market. These marriage market pressures result in a higher propensity to commit financially rewarding crimes. Research Brief


Initial Conditions Matter: Social Capital and Participatory Development (with S. Olivia and M. Shah). Dec 2015. Under submission.

Billions of dollars have been spent on participatory development programs in the developing world. These programs give community members an active decision-making role. Given the emphasis on community involvement, one might expect that the effectiveness of this approach would depend on communities' pre-existing social capital stocks. Using data from a large randomised field experiment of Community-Led Total Sanitation in Indonesia, we find that villages with high initial social capital built toilets and reduced open defecation, resulting in substantial health benefits. In villages with low initial stocks of social capital, the approach was counterproductive - fewer toilets were built than in control communities and social capital suffered. Research Brief


Scaling Up Sanitation: Evidence from an RCT in Indonesia (with M. Shah). Jan 2017. Under submission.

This paper evaluates the effectiveness of a widely used sanitation intervention, Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), using a randomized controlled trial. The intervention was implemented at scale across rural East Java in Indonesia. CLTS increases toilet construction, reduces roundworm infestations, and decreases community tolerance of open defecation. Financial constraints faced by poorer households limit their ability to improve sanitation. We also examine the program's scale up process which included local governments taking over implementation of CLTS from professional resource agencies. The results suggest that all of the sanitation and health benefits accrue from villages where resource agencies implemented the program, while local government implementation produced no discernible benefits.


Conditional Cash Transfers: Do They Result in More Patient Choices and Increased Educational Aspirations? (with D. Contreras Suarez). Oct 2016. Under submission.

Conditional Cash Transfer programs are designed to increase human capital in poorer families. They do this directly through incentives and conditions. These programs may also influence household decisions through impacts on how to allocate resources over time. A greater willingness to defer consumption may result from habits formed during the program, information received as part of the program and/or by the relaxation of the budget constraint which allows a greater ability to look beyond daily needs to the future. Using a regression discontinuity design we test whether a large conditional cash transfer program in Colombia affects the discounting choices of participating households and aspirations for their children's education. We find that it does not. There is no significant difference between current and past participating households' discounting choices and educational aspirations and those of otherwise similar non-participating households. Thus, the educational impacts identified in previous studies appear to be driven by the ongoing receipt of the cash transfers and the associated conditions. Hence if the transfers stopped, program benefits would be limited to those associated with the educational and health improvements that were obtained during the program. The health and education of subsequent children would likely revert to pre-program levels. Research Brief


How Does Health Promotion Work? Evidence from the Dirty Business of Eliminating Open Defecation (with P. Gertler, M. Shah, M. L. Alzua, S. Martinez and S. Patil). NBER Working Paper 20997, March 2015.

We investigate the mechanisms underlying health promotion campaigns designed to eliminate open defecation in at-scale randomized field experiments in four countries: India, Indonesia, Mali, and Tanzania. Health promotion works through a number of mechanisms, including: providing information on the return to better behavior, nudging better behavior that one already knows is in her self-interest, and encouraging households to invest in health products that lower the marginal cost of good behavior. We find that health promotion generally worked through both convincing households to invest in in-home sanitation facilities and nudging increased use of those facilities. We also estimate the causal relationship between village open defecation rates and child height using experimentally induced variation in open defecation for identification. Surprisingly we find a fairly linear relationship between village open defecation rates and the height of children less than 5 years old. Fully eliminating open defecation from a village where everyone defecates in the open would increase child height by 0.44 standard deviations. Hence modest to small reductions in open defecation are unlikely to have a detectable effect on child height and explain why many health promotion interventions designed to reduce open defecation fail to improve child height. Our results suggest that stronger interventions that combine intensive health promotional nudges with subsidies for sanitation construction may be needed to reduce open defecation enough to generate meaningful improvements in child health.


Risk-Taking Behavior in the Wake of Natural Disasters (with M. Shah). Journal of Human Resources 2015, Spring 50(2):484-515.

We investigate whether experiencing a natural disaster affects risk-taking behavior. We conduct standard risk games (using real money) with randomly selected individuals in rural Indonesia. We find that individuals who recently suffered a flood or earthquake exhibit more risk aversion. Experiencing a natural disaster causes people to perceive that they now face a greater risk of a future disaster. We conclude that this change in perception of background risk causes people to take fewer risks. We provide evidence that experimental risk behavior is correlated with real life risk behavior, highlighting the importance of our results.

Media Coverage: The Huffington Post, 15 Mar, 2016.


Cultural Integration: Experimental Evidence of Convergence in Immigrants' Preferences. (with N. Erkal and L. Gangadharan). Journal of Economic Behavior and Organisation, 2015, March, Vol 111:38-58.

Cultural traits play a significant role in the determination of economic outcomes and institutions. This paper presents evidence from laboratory experiments on the cultural integration of individuals of Chinese ethnicity in Australia, focusing on social preferences, risk attitudes, and preferences for competition. We find that greater exposure to Western culture is in general associated with a convergence to Western norms of behavior. Specifically, the share of education an individual receives in the West has a strong negative impact on altruism, trust towards individuals of Chinese ethnicity, and trustworthiness, while it has a significant and positive impact on trust towards Australians. For risk and competitive preferences, our results are gender-specific. These findings have important implications for policy making and institution building in multi-cultural societies.


Can Mistargeting Destroy Social Capital and Stimulate Crime? Evidence from a Cash Transfer Program in Indonesia. (with M. Shah) Economic Development and Cultural Change, 2014, 62(2):381-415.

Cash transfer programs can provide important financial support for poor households in developing countries and are becoming increasingly common. However the potential for mistargeting of program funds is high. This paper focuses on the social consequences arising from misallocation of resources in close knit communities. We find that the mistargeting of a cash transfer program in Indonesia is significantly associated with increases in crime and declines in social capital within communities. Hence poorly administered transfer programs have a potentially large negative downside that extends beyond the pure financial costs that have been the focus of the literature to date.  


Little Emperors: Behavioral Impact of China's One Child Policy;   (with N. Erkal, L. Gangadharan and X. Meng) Science, 22 Feb, 2013, 339, 953-957. Supplementary materials. 

We document that China's One-Child Policy, one of the most radical approaches to limiting population growth, has produced significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious individuals. Our data were collected from economics experiments conducted with 421 individuals born just before and just after the One-Child Policy's introduction in 1979. Surveys to elicit personality traits were also used. We use the exogenous imposition of the One Child Policy to identify the causal impact of being an only child, net of family background effects. The One-Child Policy thus has significant ramifications for Chinese society.

Selected Media Coverage: The Independent; New York Times; Time Magazine; The Scientist; BBC World Service Science in Action podcast; AAAS/Science Podcast.