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The psychology of decision-making under uncertainty: A literature review

Source(s):  Chemonics
Climate System Analysis Group (CSAG)
United States Agency for International Development (USAID)

Climate change information is often presented with a range of uncertainty about the extent of potential risks and the impacts of those risks. In climate science, the problem of deep uncertainty – uncertainty that is not likely reduced by additional research in a defined timeframe – poses a critical challenge for decision makers. Coupled with shortcomings in current efforts to communicate climate change, deep uncertainty creates a barrier to the uptake and use of climate information in adaptation programming. Knowledge from decision-making psychology may offer insights on how to improve climate change communication, integrating information under deep uncertainty. 

This report from the USAID-funded Adaptation Thought Leadership and Assessments project examines the literature on the psychological concepts that may inform decision-making processes under uncertainty in general, with a focus on climate-related decisions where possible. The report provides an overview of relevant literature, outlines key factors affecting both individual and group decision-making, and offers insights on adaptive risk-management strategies to manage uncertainty. Lastly, the report details opportunities for additional investigation of key concepts to help foster more effective decision-making for climate change policy, planning and action.

The purpose of this literature review is to inform the development of a research study that aims to improve the communication of uncertain climate information to decision makers by: 1) exploring how users make decisions when knowledge of an issue is not clear; and 2) using existing knowledge to explore how climate information can be better used in decision-making.

This report is accompanied by a technical report that examines the results of a study by the Climate System Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town that applied key concepts presented in the literature review, including experiential versus analytical information and prospect theory.



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  • The psychology of decision-making under uncertainty: A literature review
  • Publication date 2019
  • Author(s) Pasquini, Lorena; Steynor, Anna; Waagsaether, Katinka
  • Number of pages 46 p.

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