A new study says that for a shared natural resource to be used sustainably, a group of resource users must include at least one member with relevant ecological knowledge who is confident and willing to share the knowledge with the others. Photo: F. Thorsteinsson/Azote

Common-pool resource management

Confidence is king, knowledge is queen

Why cooperation alone is not enough to secure sustainable use of a resource

Story highlights

• Study looks at the conditions under which cooperation goes hand-in-hand with sustainable resource use

• The study uses a multi-method approach combining lab experiments and agent-based modelling to investigate determinants for sustainable use of shared resources

• One confident and competent resource user can lead to sustainable resource management if other group members are less knowledgeable and/or confident

The tragedy of the commons may not be so tragic after all. When Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, she had demonstrated that people are indeed capable of implementing their own rules to prevent overuse of the shared natural resources they depend upon.

To succeed with this, resource users must collaborate. But does cooperation necessarily lead to sustainable use of common-pool resources, like fisheries or forests? According to a study recently published in PLOS One, the short answer is no.

The study says that the group of resource users also needs at least one with relevant ecological knowledge, confidence in that knowledge and a willingness to share the knowledge with the others.

In the study, centre researchers Caroline Schill, Nanda Wijermans, Maja Schlüter and Therese Lindahl looked at what other factors, beyond the typically-studied ones such as trust and social preferences, are important for a group to use a shared natural resource sustainably.

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”The distribution of ecological knowledge within the group, in combination with the individuals’ confidence in that knowledge and the willingness of individuals to share their knowledge with the other group members are critical factors for sustainable outcomes.”

Caroline Schill, lead author

Lab experiments meet agent-based modelling

To get to this conclusion, the researchers developed an agent-based model informed by recently published behavioural lab experiments and observations around them.

The behavioural experiments were intended to reflect the basic elements of a common-pool resource management situation in which a group of resource users, such as fishers, share for example a common fishing ground. The logic goes: the more units each individual user extracts from the common-pool resource, the less will be available for the group as a whole in the future.

In the experiments, groups of four participants shared a fictitious renewable resource stock and over a number of rounds, the participants made individual decisions about how many units of the resource stock they would like to extract. Each unit was worth a specific amount of money.

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.

Picture show the similar setup of the behavioral experiments and the AgentEx model. Four individuals/agents share a fictive renewable resource. They have the possibility to communicate, i.e., share knowledge. Image available here


The agent-based model developed for this study simulated how the experiment participants, or "agents", interacted with each other and the renewable resource stock over time. The purpose was to study which conditions cooperation lead to sustainable resource use.

Using an agent-based model allowed the researchers to include elements of human decision-making that are normally unobservable in an experimental setting but may be important for explaining why cooperation is not enough for sustainable resource use. These elements include the knowledge each participant has about the resource dynamics, their confidence in their own knowledge and how prone they are to share it with the other members of the group.

One member can influence the others

The study revealed the importance of having at least one informed and confident member in a group. This member, or agent, was able to stimulate the less informed members of the group to pursue a more sustainable use of the resource.

"The difference that one informed and confident agent can make is significant," Wijermans says.

"Sharing knowledge and being informed and confident has a positive effect on the decisions made by an otherwise uninformed, low-confidence group."

Although the 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 that 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.

Moreover, this study also impacts research around common-pool resources: it stimulates to also focus on processes beyond cooperation and provides hints for factors that could be included in further (empirical) studies.

Future applications and extensions

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 more realistic ecosystem dynamics.

Schill says it would be interesting to allow for more abrupt changes in the availability of the resource, so-called regime shifts and account for their inherent uncertainties.

"For this paper’s purpose, we kept a fairly simple description of the ecological system, but for other purposes it may be fruitful to incorporate more realistic ecosystem dynamics. In the face of ecological changes and uncertainties, confident individuals, knowledgeable about such dynamics might be even more crucial."

"One of the next steps will be to connect back to behavioural experiments in the lab and in the field as well as case study research for guidance about future model extensions and interpretations. This would also allow us to test whether the findings are valid beyond the experimental lab," the authors conclude.

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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

Caroline Schill is a PhD student at the centre. In her research, Caroline focuses on interactions between human behaviour and ecosystem dynamics in social dilemmas.

Nanda Wijermans is a postdoctoral researcher at the Stockholm Resilienc Centre. Her research focuses on feedbacks between human (cooperative) behaviour and ecological dynamics in social-ecological systems (SES) as well as their implication for SES resilience and governance.

Therese Lindahl's research focus is broadly on environmental and resource economics, and more specifically about understanding human behavior as it relates to environmental behavior.

Maja Schlüter studies the co-evolution of social-ecological systems (SES) resulting from interactions between actors, institutions and ecosystems over time


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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