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The structure of mental models of sustainable agriculture


Progress towards sustainability is hampered by differing perceptions of how to advance goals in systems characterized by massive interdependency. Systems thinking has been advocated as a model for improving understanding and management of complex systems, but theory and methods to analyse systems thinking are not well developed. We propose and apply a new way of assessing systems thinking using social network tools to analyse mental models. We examine the cognitive maps of 148 thought leaders in sustainable agriculture in California and measure the extent to which each map captures six fundamental causal patterns. We find that the more complex forms of causal structure that are associated with systems thinking are relatively under-represented in the experts’ maps. Our findings have important implications for individual and collective decision making about sustainable agriculture and other science and policy debates involving complex systems.

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Fig. 1: Distributions of the prevalance of causal motifs in cognitive maps relative to uniform random graphs.
Fig. 2: Cognitive maps clustered on the prevalence of microstructures relative to random graphs.
Fig. 3: Correlations across cognitive maps of motif-level CUG test results and network-level statistics.


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The 148 experts who provided their mental models made this study possible, and we are deeply grateful to them. Additionally, the local community leaders who helped assemble the groups of experts were essential to this study’s success, and we thank S. Rios, L. Bell, C. Smith, H. George, D. Doll and G. Miyao for their time and effort. The UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute provided support that made this work possible, and we particularly thank B. Ransom for her contributions, as well as Marco Bastos and Carlos Barahona for valuable discussions.

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All authors contributed to designing the study, hosting workshops, analysing data, and preparing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Michael A. Levy.

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Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary Figures 1-4

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Levy, M.A., Lubell, M.N. & McRoberts, N. The structure of mental models of sustainable agriculture. Nat Sustain 1, 413–420 (2018).

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