Common pool resources

The cognition of the commons

Participants of a UNICEF workshop in Ethiopia discuss access and allocation of groundwater resources, a typical common pool resource. Photo: Mulugeta Ayene for UNICEF Ethiopia.

The ability to monitor, evaluate and share our own cognitive processes can improve group decisions and enable more sustainable use of common-pool resources

Story highlights

  • Collective use of common-pool resources, like fisheries and groundwater, run the risk of suffering from overexploitation
  • New study explores whether sharing of “metacognitive information” can help groups overcome this and more sustainably manage collectively shared resources
  • An agent-based computer model was used to study this issue in both “kind” and “wicked” environments

One of the oldest and most critical sustainability problems revolves around the collective use of common-pool resources, like fisheries, groundwater and pastures. Such resources run the risk of suffering from overexploitation if everybody acts only in their own interest, over-consuming the resource while depleting it for all.

Both experiments and field studies have, however, found that communication between local resource users can help to overcome this tragedy and improve resource management. This has mostly been explained by increased trust or solidarity, but now a new study published in the journal Cognitive Science explores whether the “sharing of metacognitive information” can also play a part. Unpacking what this actually means, one of the co-authors, centre researcher Nanda Wijermans, says:

“Metacognition is the ability to monitor and evaluate our own thinking, for example the capacity to reflect on which cognitive skills we use to succeed in a given task. In this study we explored how much the sharing of such metacognitive information can help groups to sustainably manage a collectively shared resource.”

Simulating interactions

The study was conducted together with Helen Fisher, its first author, who was a visiting researcher at the centre, and centre researcher Maja Schlüter. Helen Fischer now works at the Leibniz Institut für Wissensmedien in Tübingen, Germany, but the work was mostly done during her stay at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

The three researchers applied an “agent-based model,” a sophisticated computer simulation used in many different disciplines to study the interactions between people and between people and environment over time. These models are built bottom-up meaning individual agents (people in this case) are assigned certain attributes (such as different behaviours and cognitive biases) and mechanisms in how they perceive and act in a given situation.

Our research highlights an overlooked mechanism which, among others, can explain why it is so important for groups all over the world to improve communication to enable more sustainable use of common-pool resources.

Helen Fisher, lead author

The agent-based model used in this case is called AgentEx-Meta and is a continuation of AgentEx, an SRC-Beijer collaboration that combines behavioural experiments and agent-based modelling to study the collective behaviour in the commons. AgentEx-Meta simulates repeated group decisions regarding a common resource, while varying the extent to which agents (people) have access to metacognitive information, both individually and as a group.

Kind and wicked environments

The model was run to simulate group interactions in two types of environments, “kind” and “wicked”. The first refers to situations where confidence in knowledge about the resource and accuracy are positively related. The second describes the opposite, wicked environments, where relying on people’s confidence about the state of the resource can be misleading.

The results showed that in “kind environments”, sharing metacognitive information allowed groups to reach more correct judgments. In “wicked environments”, on the other hand, groups using metacognition gradually formed less accurate judgments over time. In conclusion, the study did identify potential social benefits of metacognition in common-pool resource settings, at least when the information was explicitly shared in the whole group.

“Our research highlights an overlooked mechanism which, among others, can explain why it is so important for groups all over the world to improve communication to enable more sustainable use of common-pool resources,” says Helen Fisher.

Read the full article here >>

Published: 2023-05-12

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