Systematic Review: Decision-Making for Sustainability


This report covers over 60 years and 207 studies on decision-making for sustainability.

How can we encourage individuals and organizations to make more sustainable choices?

Practitioners at leading Canadian organizations asked NBS: “How do individuals make decisions regarding social and environmental issues?”

Leaders of these organizations recognize that individuals are key actors in deciding sustainability outcomes, inside and outside organizations. Many decisions that individuals make — from what food to buy to how much energy to use — involve sustainability-related tradeoffs. Organizational leaders sought to understand what factors shape decisions, and how to support more sustainable choices.

NBS selected researchers Joseph Arvai, Victoria Campbell-Arvai, and Piers Steel to conduct a systematic review of the academic and practice literature on decision-making. With direction from a Guidance Committee of academic and industry experts, the research team reviewed more than 60 years of research on decision-making, synthesizing data from 207 studies. This report was specifically based on research that sought to understand and support actual decision-making behavior (as opposed to attitudes or intentions to perform a particular behavior).

Download the full 96-page Systematic Review for an in-depth look at the research project. A condensed version of the Systematic Review is available as an Executive Report.

Decision-Making in Practice

  • A sustainability officer is tasked with finding ways to encourage employees to reduce office waste.

  • A manufacturing company is looking to address a broad array of health, environmental and economic considerations when remediating and reclaiming the grounds of one of its old facilities.

  • A non-governmental organization is seeking to increase the adoption of energy efficiency measures among homeowners.These scenarios represent the kinds of tough, sustainability-related decisions faced by individuals, organizations and governments.

This report describes why people may face difficulties when balancing social, economic and environmental considerations in these types of decision-making scenarios.

Different Models of Decision-Making

Scientific understanding of how people make decisions has changed. This report describes different scientific models:

Normative Decision-Making: This is decision-making the “textbook” way. Standard economic theory assumes that people are rational decision-makers. Rational decision-making suggests people possess a set of stable preferences that they consult during the process of making decisions and that all decision-relevant information about alternatives can be carefully weighed and considered to ensure decision outcomes are in line with these preferences.

Descriptive Models: These describe how people actually make decisions. The descriptive models of decision-making in this report reflect more than 60 years of research on how and why decision-makers do not adhere to the strict principles of rationality. Predictable shortcuts and biases in human decision-making prevent us from behaving as “rational” decision makers in the strict economic sense. The researchers specifically focussed on descriptive models that can help us understand why people do (or do not) engage in sustainable behavior.

Prescriptive Models: A Basis for Intervention

Prescriptive models help people make better decisions. They are sometimes called decision-support tools and techniques.

In this report, the researchers identified and included models that either were already being used to support and motivate decision-making for sustainability or could lend themselves easily to this context. The report describes these decision-support tools and how they work, focusing particularly on where and when these models are best applied.

There are two primary categories of decision-support techniques:

  1. Active decision-support techniques are used in high-stakes decisions which involve multiple stakeholders.

  1. Passive decision-support techniques are appropriate for low-stakes decisions. These are small, frequent and quick decisions, usually made at the individual level.

The figures below outline active and passive decision-support models.

Figure 1. Active Decision Support

Figure 1. Active Decision Support

Figure 2. Passive Decision Support

Figure 2. Passive Decision Support


What We Know and What We Don’t Know

Literature on decision-making spans well over 60 years, but only relatively recently have researchers and practitioners begun to apply the principles of behavioural decision research to understanding and supporting sustainable decision-making. This review summarizes what we know about how people actually make decisions (the descriptive component) and the tools that are available to help us make better decisions (the prescriptive component). But this research area is still evolving. In many ways, managers are actually leading research, applying ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit to solve today’s sustainability dilemmas.

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