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Sustainability and Cooperation

The central challenge of transforming societies towards sustainability is that most natural resources are so-called common-pool resources or collective goods. Self-interested individuals tend to overuse these resources, creating the famous tragedy of the commons and leading to resource exhaustion. My work contributes in three ways to understanding how human collectives can become more sustainable.

First, I study how social institutions can promote cooperation and sustainability. In the past decades, behavioral research on cooperation focused on psychological factors that help to overcome the tragedy of the commons. In particular, social preferences have been shown to motivate individuals to contribute to the production of common pool resources and public goods. On the other hand, this work has also demonstrated that social preferences increase contributions only when actors decide under optimal institutional conditions. Peer punishment institutions, for instance, can foster contributions when actors have social preferences, but cooperation brakes down when punishment is too costly, when monitoring is imperfect, when there are also anti-social preferences, or when actors can counter-punish. Inspired by the seminal work of Elinor Ostrom, I study the conditions under which various forms of social institutions foster contributions. Ostrom argued that “`getting the institutions right’ is a difficult, time-consuming, conflict-invoking process”(1990, p14) but that the tragedy of the commons can be overcome by smart, tailor-made social institutions. With experiments in the laboratory and in the field, I study peer-punishment institutions and signaling institutions. In addition, I am interested in reputation systems and meritocratic institutions. The aim is to compile a list of structural conditions specifying when each of these institutions successfully increases cooperation, in order to better inform designers of social institutions.

Second, I study cooperation cascades. Climate change can only be stopped or even reversed if humans drastically adjust their behavior. Research on the design of incentive programs, nudging interventions, and social institutions demonstrate that the behavior of individuals can be changed in ways that decrease their climate impact. However, many existing interventions are either very expensive or have only small or temporary effects, in particular when behavior change entails costs for the individual as in the case of environmental behavior (e.g. refraining from air travel). Furthermore, existing interventions scale linearly in that they target each actor individually, which limits their ability to fight climate change.

Therefore, I aim to derive and test hypotheses about the conditions under which interventions targeting a limited number of individuals can spark cascades that lead to behavioral changes in large parts of a population. In my theoretical work with Karl-Dieter Opp (2016), for instance, I studied interventions that use so-called “descriptive norms” to motivate behavioral change in individuals by disclosing information about the average behavior in the population. We demonstrated that this intervention’s overall effect on behavior in a population tends to be very limited, in line with earlier empirical work. However, we could also identify structural conditions under which behavioral changes by a few individuals can motivate others to also adjust their behavior, which leads to further behavioral changes, and so on. Such behavioral cascades can profoundly change collective behavior over and above the disclosure effect on isolated individuals, as the little video illustrates. 

Third, I work with climate scientists to help them represent humans in Earth System models. In the Anthropocene humans have a decisive impact on the earth’s climate and climate change profoundly affects humans. This interdependency between climate and humans creates a feedback loop that is hardly understood but can create non-linear dynamics with the potential to substantially change the predictions of Earth Systems Models developed to understand and predict climate change. To date, however, humans are not directly represented in existing Earth System Models, as these models are purely informed by theories and data about physical processes. Climatologists consider this a core weakness of existing approaches to predict climate change and inform policy design. 

Together with researchers from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research (PIK), my aim is to integrate humans into Earth System Models in order to capture the nonlinear dynamics arising from the feedback loop between humans and climate. The central challenge of this endeavor is to keep assumptions about human behavior sufficiently simple but complex enough to accurately capture their impact on climate dynamics.

Relevant publications: