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A Cognition-based View of Decision Processes in Complex Social–Ecological Systems

Kathi K. Beratan, Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Carolina State University


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This synthesis paper is intended to provide an overview of individual and collective decision-making processes that might serve as a theoretical foundation for a complexity-based approach to environmental policy design and natural resource management planning. Human activities are the primary drivers of change in the Earth’s biosphere today, so efforts to shift the trajectory of social–ecological systems must focus on changes in individual and collective human behavior. Recent advances in understanding the biological basis of thought and memory offer insights of use in designing management and planning processes. The human brain has evolved ways of dealing with complexity and uncertainty, and is particularly attuned to social information. Changes in an individual’s schemas, reflecting changes in the patterns of neural connections that are activated by particular stimuli, occur primarily through nonconsious processes in response to experiential learning during repeated exposure to novel situations, ideas, and relationships. Discourse is an important mechanism for schema modification, and thus for behavior change. Through discourse, groups of people construct a shared story—a collective model—that is useful for predicting likely outcomes of actions and events. In effect, good stories are models that filter and organize distributed knowledge about complex situations and relationships in ways that are readily absorbed by human cognitive processes. The importance of discourse supports the view that collaborative approaches are needed to effectively deal with environmental problems and natural resource management challenges. Methods derived from the field of mediation and dispute resolution can help us take advantage of the distinctly human ability to deal with complexity and uncertainty. This cognitive view of decision making supports fundamental elements of resilience management and adaptive co-management, including fostering social learning through the involvement of a broad range of stakeholders, and building trust and increasing links among governance organizations.

Key words

cognition; complex social–ecological systems; cultural change; decision making; discourse; natural resource management; schemas

Copyright © 2007 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work 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