A more dynamic understanding of human behaviour for the Anthropocene


Human behaviour is of profound significance in shaping pathways towards sustainability. Yet, the approach to understanding human behaviour in many fields remains reliant on overly simplistic models. For a better understanding of the interface between human behaviour and sustainability, we take work in behavioural economics and cognitive psychology as a starting point, but argue for an expansion of this work by adopting a more dynamic and systemic understanding of human behaviour, that is, as part of complex adaptive systems. A complex adaptive systems approach allows us to capture behaviour as ‘enculturated’ and ‘enearthed’, co-evolving with socio–cultural and biophysical contexts. Connecting human behaviour and context through a complex adaptive systems lens is critical to inform environmental governance and management for sustainability, and ultimately to better understand the dynamics of the Anthropocene itself.

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Fig. 1: From ‘econs’ to humans as ‘enculturated’ and ‘enearthed’.
Fig. 2: Different conceptualizations of interactions between human behaviour and context.
Fig. 3: From Homo economicus to regarding human behaviour as part of CAS.


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This Perspective is a product of a series of Behaviour, Economics and Nature (BEN) workshops hosted by the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The work has been funded by the Kjell and Märta Beijer Foundation, and the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation. We would like to thank S. West and D. Ospina for insightful comments and suggestions on previous drafts.

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C.S., J.M.A., T.L., C.F. and S.P. conceived the idea with input from J.C.C., A.-S.C., M.A.J., J.N. and M.S. C.S., J.M.A. and T.L. led the writing process with input from C.F., S.P., J.C.C., A.-S.C., M.A.J., J.N. and M.S. C.S. and T.L. led the revision with input from J.M.A., C.F., S.P., J.C.C., A.-S.C., M.A.J., J.N. and M.S.

Correspondence to Therese Lindahl.

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Schill, C., Anderies, J.M., Lindahl, T. et al. A more dynamic understanding of human behaviour for the Anthropocene. Nat Sustain 2, 1075–1082 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0419-7

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