Programme 2019-09-11

Programme description



We live in a highly connected world with escalating technological, economic and social change. As the scale of human activities increases and our society becomes more globalized, we impact an increasing number of earth system processes. Biodiversity loss, resource degradation, and, not least of our concerns, global climate change reflect this situation. Considering these rapid changes at the planetary scale, ensuring a livable planet and well-being for future generations will require fundamental changes in our infrastructure systems, governance structures, and, perhaps most importantly,  human behavior.

Extensive research in psychology, economics, and political science provides a solid understanding of human behavior in existing institutional, economic, and social contexts. However, given the profound significance of human behavior in shaping future pathways towards sustainability we argue that a richer understanding of human behavior than we currently have is required, an understanding that takes into account that human behavior is embedded in (affects and is affected by) an economic, social, cultural and ecological context, and that behavior continuously co-evolves with these changing contexts.

The overall mission of the research program BEN (Behavior, Economics and Nature) is to contribute to this new understanding by advancing current research on human behavior, to integrate scientific expertise from a broad set of disciplines, to accelerate and advance world-class, high quality and highly relevant sustainability science.  We are interested in uncovering fundamental aspects of human behavior that either enhance or reduce capacity for rapid re-organization and/or transformations, at large scales.


Our approach based on ideas from complex adaptive systems (CAS) approach acknowledges that people take decisions while being embedded and affected by their social-cultural environment and the biosphere they are ultimately dependent upon. Through a CAS approach we can study the interplay between micro and macro levels of action and social organization.  For example, we are interested in how interactions between humans, and between humans and nature at lower levels give rise to broader scale patterns in society, how certain behavioral norms emerge and evolve in a specific time and place,  and how different behavioral norms can emerge depending on context (e.g. cultural, economic and ecological). We also study how larger scale processes and phenomena, such as trade, technological change, and climate change give rise to certain behavioral responses, interactions and outcomes at lower levels. The governance and social structures of the last two centuries that provided the basis for the development of our present-day, hyper-efficient, production-based societies with their emphasis on short-term stability and longer-term growth are poorly suited for responding to the challenges of the coming decades.   We argue that understanding human behavior in the context of CAS is of critical importance for understanding the different potential pathways along which society might evolve in the Anthropocene.


Our activities mainly include research and meetings/workshops focused on human behavior as it relates to the biosphere, but we also engage with practitioners from the public and private sector.

Our research activities center on human subject experiments (in both laboratory and field contexts, e.g. with resource users), mathematical modeling, and case study analyses applied to human-environmental systems (link to web page for more info/details on specific projects).

In our meetings/workshops we invite scholars from a variety of disciplines. During these meetings we synthesize our collective knowledge to broaden our perspectives. They also serve as platforms for innovation. Results from these meetings then also guide our research and feed into new research questions.

With key actors in the private or public sector we design and evaluate innovations together, while we also co-learn through natural experiments composed of policy interventions.

With these activities we aim to make critical contributions to our understanding of human behavior in social-ecological systems. In particular we are interested in unraveling the fundamental aspects of human behavior that can either enhance or reduce societies’ capacity to cope with change.  This understanding  will be of critical importance to inform environmental governance and management actions for sustainability in the Anthropocene.