Journal Article

A typology of time-scale mismatches and behavioral interventions to diagnose and solve conservation problems

Sep 21, 2015 | Robyn S. Wilson, David J. Hardisty, Rebecca Epanchin-Niell, Michael C. Runge, Kathryn L. Cottingham, Dean L. Urban, Lynn A. Maguire, Alan Hastings, Peter Mumby, Debra P.C. Peters


Ecological systems often operate on timescales significantly longer, or shorter, than the timescales typical of human decision-making, which causes substantial difficulty for conservation. For example, invasive species may move faster than humans can diagnose problems and initiate solutions. Climate systems may exhibit both long-term inertia and short-term fluctuations that obscure learning about the efficacy of adaptation and mitigation efforts. We adopted a management decision framework that distinguishes decision makers within public institutions from individual actors within the social system, calls attention to the ways that socio-ecological systems respond to decision makers’ actions, and notes institutional learning that accrues from observing these responses. We used this framework, along with insights from challenging conservation problems, to create a typology that identifies problematic timescale mismatches and suggests solutions that involve modifying human perception and behavior at the individual level. The potential solutions are derived from the behavioral economics and psychology literature on temporal challenges in decision making. They include framing environmental decisions to enhance the salience of long-term consequences, using structured decision processes that make timescales of actions and consequences explicit, and structural solutions aimed at altering the consequences of short-sighted behavior. We demonstrate how our typology can be used to diagnose timescale mismatches and call for more research aimed at employing and validating the behavioral solutions identified.