Cognition and behavior in context: a framework and theories to explain natural resource use decisions in social-ecological systems

S. M. Constantino, M. Schlüter, E. U. Weber, N. Wijermans

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


The complex, context-dependent, and dynamic nature of human behavior is increasingly recognized as both an important cause of sustainability problems and potential leverage for their solution. Human beings are diverse, as are the social, ecological, and institutional settings in which they are embedded. Despite this recognition and extensive knowledge about human decision-making in the behavioral sciences, empirical analysis, formal models, and decision support for sustainability policy in natural resource management often either neglect human behavior or are based on narrow and overly simplistic assumptions. Integrating insights from behavioral sciences into sustainability research and policy remains a challenge. This is in part due to the abundance and fragmentation of theories across the social sciences and in part the challenges of translating research across disciplines. We provide a set of tools to support the integration of knowledge about human behavior into empirical and model-based sustainability research. In particular, we (i) develop a process-oriented framework of embedded human cognition (Human Behavior-Cognition in Context or HuB-CC), (ii) select an initial set of 31 theories with the potential to illuminate behavior in natural resource contexts and map them onto the framework, and (iii) suggest pathways for using the framework and mapping to encourage trans-disciplinary investigations, identify and compare theories, and facilitate their integration into empirical research, formal models, and ultimately policy and governance for sustainability. Our theory selection, framework, and mapping offer a foundation—a “living” platform—upon which future collaborative efforts can build to create a resource for scholars and practitioners working at the intersection of social sciences and natural resource management.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1651-1671
Number of pages21
JournalSustainability Science
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Health(social science)
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Ecology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


  • Behavior
  • Cognition
  • Embedded cognition
  • Framework
  • Social science
  • Social-ecological system


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