Science Inventory

Understanding and applying principles of social cognition and decision making in adaptive environmental governance


DeCaro, D., T. Arnold, E. Boamah, AND A. Garmestani. Understanding and applying principles of social cognition and decision making in adaptive environmental governance. Ecology and Society. Resilience Alliance Publications, Waterloo, Canada, 22(1):33, (2017).


Social-ecological stressors place significant pressure on major societal systems, triggering adaptive reforms in human governance and environmental law. Though potentially beneficial for society, adaptive governance is complex and uncertain; it may restructure existing power dynamics and introduce new behavioral policies, which alter currently preferred ways of life and scrutinize fundamental assumptions held by particular social groups. These changes may be perceived as threatening to some social groups, making necessary reforms difficult to comprehend or accept, hindering adaptation. Several cognitive biases in human decision making impede adaptation, making decision makers susceptible to framing, misinformation, and deliberative political manipulation. These biases are amplified by mediating social systems, such as news media, culture, and politics, and processes like social representation, which reinterpret legal frameworks, contributing to non-cooperation and maladaptive behavior. This information is of interest to Regional and Program Office decision makers, States, and local affected communities.


Environmental governance systems are under greater pressure to adapt and to cope with increased social and ecological uncertainty from stressors like climate change. We review principles of social cognition and decision making that shape and constrain how environmental governance systems adapt. We focus primarily on the interplay between key decision makers in society and legal systems. We argue that adaptive governance must overcome three cooperative dilemmas to facilitate adaptation: (1) encouraging collaborative problem solving, (2) garnering social acceptance and commitment, and (3) cultivating a culture of trust and tolerance for change and uncertainty. However, to do so governance systems must cope with biases in people’s decision making that cloud their judgment and create conflict. These systems must also satisfy people’s fundamental needs for self-determination, fairness, and security, ensuring that changes to environmental governance are perceived as legitimate, trustworthy, and acceptable. We discuss the implications of these principles for common governance solutions (e.g., public participation, enforcement) and conclude with methodological recommendations. We outline how scholars can investigate the social cognitive principles involved in cases of adaptive governance.

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Record Details:

Product Published Date: 03/01/2017
Record Last Revised: 05/11/2018
OMB Category: Other
Record ID: 336771