The difference that one informed and confident agent can make

Collaboration among group members is seen as essential to bringing about change, but is this cooperation enough?

Recent research finds that in the context of the sustainable use of pool resources, the answer is “no”. The study[1] revealed that it is also important to have at least one confident and knowledgeable person in each group.

The authors advise that although the study results cannot be used directly to develop policies or management recommendations, the study does provide some insights for community-based management of common-pool resources:

a) not every member of a resource user community needs to have perfect ecological knowledge in order for the community to secure the long-term provision of the common-pool resource if there are processes where sharing of knowledge and experiences is possible
b) knowledge sharing is crucial
c) low confidence in knowledge, which can be interpreted as perceived environmental uncertainty, is not necessarily a bad thing, as it can open up for change and possibilities for learning.

To arrive at their conclusions, the authors developed an agent-based model informed by recently published behavioural lab experiments and other observations.

Behavioural experiments were conducted, reflecting the basic elements of a common-pool resource management situation. Groups of four participants shared a fictitious renewable resource stock, and over a number of rounds made individual decisions about extracting units of the resource stock. Each unit was worth a specific amount of money. The more units each individual user extracts from the common-pool resource, the less is available for the group as a whole in the future:

Participants could make collective agreements on how much to extract and avoid overuse, i.e., the tragedy of the commons. However, the experiments showed that cooperative groups did not necessarily use the shared resource sustainably — the point of departure of this study.

The agent-based model developed for this study allowed the researchers to include elements of human decision-making that normally can’t be observed in an experimental setting, but which may be important for explaining why cooperation is not enough for sustainable resource use. These elements include: the knowledge each participant has about the dynamics of the resource, the confidence they have in their own knowledge, and the likelihood that they will share their knowledge with the other group members.

In the future, the authors want to use the model to test further hypotheses about individual and collective decision-making and learning, as well as incorporating ecosystem dynamics that are more realistic.

Article sources: Stockholm Resilience Centre, PLOS One.

Header image source: Nutrient management on dairy farms by Bruce Boyes is licensed by CC BY 2.0.


  1. Schill C, Wijermans N, Schlüter M, Lindahl T (2016) Cooperation Is Not Enough — Exploring Social-Ecological Micro-Foundations for Sustainable Common-Pool Resource Use. PLoS ONE 11(8): e0157796. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0157796

Originally published at RealKM.