Human Decision Making

Our Approach

Human decisions are complex and depend on more than just needs and available resources: individual preferences, social influence or habits often play a role in real-world decision making, whereas classical economics assumes a selfish rational actor, seeking to optimise his or her utility based on perfect knowledge. Also, humans often use rather simple heuristics (e.g. “If it doesn’t rain in spring, I will take my animals to a remote pasture in summer”) instead of complex computations. In our models, we will incorporate and compare different decision making approaches, e.g. a fully rational profit-maximiser and a bounded-rational ‘satisficer’ who rather aims at securing a minimum livelihood.

As we model human actors, e.g. pastoralists, as individual agents, we can implement both simple if-then heuristics as well as complex mathematical optimisation methods and compare their interplay. On this basis, our models allow us to analyse how policy instruments change land use patterns according to the underlying type of human decision making.


Groeneveld, J., Müller, B., Buchmann, C.M., Dressler, G., Guo, C., Hase, J. N., Hoffmann, F., John, F., Klassert, C., Lauf, T., Liebelt, V., Nolzen, H., Pannicke, N., Schulze, J., Weise, H., Schwarz, N. (2017). Theoretical foundations of human decision-making in agent-based land use models – A review. Environmental Modelling & Software 87, 39-48. doi.

The complex and context-dependent nature of human decision-making has resulted in ad-hoc representations of human decision in agent-based land use change models (LUCC ABMs). We review 134 LUCC ABM papers and show that most human decision sub-models are not explicitly based on a specific theory; and if so, they are mostly based on economic theories, such as the rational actor. Consolidating and enlarging the theoretical basis for modelling human decision-making may be achieved by using a structural framework for modellers, re-using published decision models, learning from other disciplines and fostering collaboration with social scientists.

Schlüter, M., Baeza, A., Dressler, G., Frank, K., Groeneveld, J., Jager, W., Janssen, M.A., McAllister, R.R.J., Müller, B., Orach, K., Schwarz, N. & Wijermans, N. (2017). A framework for mapping and comparing behavioural theories in models of social-ecological systems. Ecological Economics 131, 21-35. doi.

We provide a framework – MoHuB (Modelling Human Behavior) – to facilitate a broader inclusion of theories on human decision-making in formal natural resource management models. It serves as a tool and common language to describe, compare and communicate alternative theories. This approach may enable modellers to be more explicit and inclusive about theories of human decision making in the analysis of social-ecological systems.