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

Daniel A. DeCaro, Department of Urban and Public Affairs, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Louisville
Craig Anthony (Tony) 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, Department of Urban and Public Affairs, University of Louisville
Ahjond S. Garmestani, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


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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.

Key words

adaptive governance; cognition; cooperation; environmental law; legitimacy; social decision making

Copyright © 2017 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087