NEWS 2020-09-01

A more dynamic understanding of human behaviour

Ensuring a liveable planet and well-being for future generations will require a major shift in human behaviour. This behavioural change is both one of the greatest challenges and one of the greatest opportunities for sustainable development. In a paper published in the journal Nature Sustainability, researchers from the Beijer Institute and its close network of collaborators suggest a new approach for conceptualising human behaviour to better explore potential pathways towards sustainability.

At the core of this approach is an understanding that our behaviours shape, and are shaped by, the diverse contexts in which we live. These contexts include the specific moment in which we make decisions, the diverse social and cultural groups of which we are part, and the biophysical environments all around us. The authors argue that a complex adaptive systems approach is critical as a basis for environmental governance.

Why simplified models simply don’t fit

The paper takes the reader on a journey from models of human behaviour based on Homo economicus to models where human behaviour is regarded as part of complex adaptive systems. During this journey, the paper invites the reader to reflect on research insights underlying the recognition that people are diverse and intrinsically pro-social, do not always act on their plans, and are generally not consistent optimisers. These recognitions are based on the bulk of work to date in cognitive psychology and behavioural economics.

Expanding the view of behaviour

The authors continue by presenting relevant insights from social, environmental and cultural psychology and from cultural sociology and sustainability science about the more ‘durable’ influences of different socio–cultural and biophysical contexts on individuals’, as well as their interactions with others and their environments. In their words, humans are ‘quasi-rational’, ‘enculturated’ and ‘enearthed’. The term ‘enearthed’ is an original contribution of the paper conveying that, irrespective of where we live and how we earn our living, we are embedded in the biosphere and thus our actions and overall well-being intimately depend on the biosphere.

The authors conclude with reflections on the implications for policy design and research. They argue that utilising more realistic models of human behaviour with an emphasis on context can improve policy design, but will require new research collaborations. The specific lens that the paper provides may in fact facilitate such novel collaborations. A complex adaptive systems approach can serve as a bridge enabling scholars in different fields, and even with contrasting perspectives on human action, to engage in fertile cross-disciplinary dialogue around the interface of human behaviour and sustainability.

Schill, C., J. M. Anderies, T. Lindahl, C. Folke, S. Polasky, J. C. Cárdenas, A.-S. Crépin, M. A. Janssen, J. Norberg, and M. Schlüter. 2019. A more dynamic understanding of human behaviour for the Anthropocene. Nature Sustainability 2:1075–1082.

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