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

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Emmanuel Frimpong Boamah, assistant professor of urban and regional planning, and collaborators review principles of social cognition and decision making that shape and constrain how environmental governance systems adapt.

Environmental governance systems are under greater pressure to adapt and to cope with increased social and ecological uncertainty from stressors like climate change. This study focuses primarily on the interplay between key decision makers in society and legal systems. The authors 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. This paper discusses the implications of these principles for common governance solutions (e.g., public participation, enforcement) and conclude with methodological recommendations. Finally, it outlines how scholars can investigate the social cognitive principles involved in cases of adaptive governance.


Daniel A. DeCaro
Department of Urban and Public Affairs, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Louisville

Craig Anthony Arnold
Brandeis School of Law, Department of Urban and Public Affairs, and Center for Land Use and Environmental Responsibility, University of Louisville

Emmanuel Frimpong Boamah, Assistant Professor
Department of Urban and Regional Planning, University at Buffalo

Ahjond S. Garmestani
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


Ecology and Society

Date Published