A multidisciplinary approach to understand successful collective action: The case of Dutch mutuals



Over the past decade, the number of institutions for collective action has risen tremendously. These institutions are a response to withdrawing governments and comprise collectivities of citizens establishing arrangements to overcome collective action problems currently not solved through the free market. Examples are collectivities providing renewable energy, sustainably produced food, self-organized insurance, or affordable and high-quality care. In each instance, the initiative is institutionalized to sustain cooperation for an extended period of time, as without regulation collective action could easily break down due to free-riding behavior.


A good example of institutionalized collective action is provided by the organization of 9,500 independent entrepreneurs in Dutch Broodfondsen. Broodfondsen are mutual insurance associations or mutuals in which collectivities of 20 to 50 independent entrepreneurs address their financial insecurity by providing compensation for sick leave at much lower costs than regular insurance companies, building on trust and avoiding large overhead costs. The created insurance provides a security benefit for each member involved. Healthy members contribute to sustain the resource, knowing they can extract from it in case of sickness. At the same time, they might have an incentive to pretend illness, trying to get their investment back. The question thus arises how cooperation is sustained and misuse avoided. What factors explain the success of mutuals? And how can future success be guaranteed and misuse avoided when mutuals continue to grow?

Aim and approach

A multidisciplinary, multi-method approach for studying collective action problems will be applied. Results of previous research hint at the importance of studying individual, social, and institutional factors in combination, yet research on how these factors interact and how they can be combined to optimize success of cooperative efforts is scarce. Taking mutuals as an example, we investigate how these factors influence cooperation through a combination of lab experiments and observations of real-life behavior. We start with reconstructing, theoretically, the basic institutional and social set-up within which cooperation in mutuals takes place. We model individual behavior within this set-up to derive predictions on likelihoods of success depending on institutional variations.


To test the predictions derived from this model we construct, in the laboratory, different institutional and social set-ups of mutuals and measure individual characteristics on cooperative behavior, pro-social preferences, personal motives etc. of subjects. Using decisions in these experiments, we study the success of the institutional and social set-ups of mutuals and how these depend on characteristics of subjects involved. Subsequently, we test the same hypotheses in the field. Using survey-type methods and, if feasible, field experiments, we investigate which mutuals are more or less successful and how this can be explained measuring the institutional design, social context, and individual characteristics.


Combining laboratory and field methods, we aim at multi-faceted causal evidence on success factors for collective action in mutuals. Joining these pieces of evidence should uncover the mechanisms behind the success of collective action initiatives and provide opportunities for optimizing their institutional designs with an eye on the social contexts and the individuals involved.

Applicant of this project

Eva Vriens (PhD candidate, Utrecht University)


Prof. dr. Vincent Buskens (Utrecht University, Department of Sociology), first supervisor

Prof. dr. Tine De Moor (Utrecht University, Department of History and Art History), second supervisor

Projectcode Utrecht University


Extended version 



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