Chapter 9: Human Behavior Dynamics in Sustainability

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Human behavior dynamics and actions play a direct and significant role in shaping pathways toward sustainability, resulting in many sustainability challenges. A social dilemma arose when a hypothetical Colorado rural town closed down most of its medicine take-back stations as a result of reduced tax revenue. The current discourse discusses a scenario in which an individual "plays" against everyone else concerning whether to drive to the take-back station to dispose of unused medication (i.e., cooperating) or to flush it or throw it in the landfill (i.e., defecting). Using the structure of the pay-off matrix, this study analyzed unwanted medication disposal from a social dilemma perspective to provide insight into an individual's motivations to cooperate or defect and techniques for encouraging cooperation. The pay-off matrix encompasses four scenarios, namely, win-win when everyone cooperates, you're the sucker when only the individual cooperates, free rider when only the individual defects, and the tragedy of the commons when everyone defects. Reasons for an individual to cooperate include sharing the high moral value with everyone else, valuing social conformity, and taking great pride in doing the right thing, even when cooperating is costly. On the other hand, the individual who defects believes that cooperating will likely make little difference. The individual is selfish or insufficiently motivated by altruism and feels that the bad action will not get caught. When everyone defects, it likely results from participants not wanting to be a "sucker" and a lack of accountability (e.g., no punishment) associated with bad behavior. One solution to the free-rider problem is to appeal to the free rider's altruism. It is important to convince the individual that doing things for the benefit of others can also benefit themselves. Furthermore, a way to fix the social dilemma is to make the defectors pay for their actions that cause the negative externality (i.e., town water contaminated with pharmaceutical chemicals from unwanted medications). The higher the financial incentive for cooperative behavior, the lower the defecting propensity. By including punishment (e.g., discipline and penalty), people tend to defect less often, and highly cooperative outcomes emerge.
Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationSustainability Engineering: Challenges, Technologies, and Applications (1st ed.)
EditorsE. C. D. Tan
StatePublished - 2023

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/CH-5100-87366


  • human behavior
  • pay-off matrix
  • sustainability


Dive into the research topics of 'Chapter 9: Human Behavior Dynamics in Sustainability'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this