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Choices in the face of uncertainty: Study points to thresholds and framing as major influencing factors

Date: May 05, 2017

Understanding human incentives for positive change in uncertain situations


A new paper in the journal Climatic Change highlights human incentives for positive change in uncertain situations. The research shows that humans will take collective action to address a common problem if the problem, the amount of action needed to address the problem, and the potential consequences of not solving the problem are framed appropriately.

The paper focuses on climate change, but its findings apply in other contexts. It looks at the willingness of people to take action on public commons type problems. It shows that if there is a known threshold of action, people are willing to contribute towards a common goal, even if the consequences of not doing so are unknown.

As an example, imagine a small community in the Front Range of Colorado. This community is nestled in the foothills surrounded by forests. Homes are on larger lots from ½ to 5 acres and there are a few areas of federal and state-owned forest land intermixed, adjoining various properties. You have been told by local fire officials that this coming fire season could be pretty bad.

As a single parcel owner, it seems daunting—even if you take care of your own defensible space, there is so much forest surrounding you that you are not sure it will even make a difference. You try to get in touch with your neighbors to let them know about the impending risk. Is it certain there will be a fire in your community? No. But, if the fires come, it is going to be potentially very bad for the entire community. How bad? It is hard to tell. 

The application of this research shows that my neighbors and I will take action to mitigate the danger if we know what trees we need to remove to be safe, even though we are unsure if a fire will occur if we do nothing. However, if we don’t know what trees to remove, even if we know that a fire will happen if we do nothing, we are less likely to take action to address the danger. 

The science of uncertainty is not new, in fact several other papers have been published in the last few years looking at how to motivate people in the face of uncertainty. What this paper contributes to the science is an understanding of the importance of framing the issue and how framing impacts collective action. How you frame the issue is critical to how people will respond. The greater the uncertainty around the threshold that needs to be reached the more contribution you lose from the participants.

What this research shows is that most people are not as self-interested as economists tend to assume; in fact, many people are actually altruistic and are willing to act towards the greater good at significant cost to themselves, especially if there are known thresholds of action.

Key Findings

  • To solve collective action problems (such as addressing climate change), people are more likely to contribute if there is a known threshold of action, which if carried out will certainly avoid serious future losses.

  • This is true even if the outcome is uncertain. If people know that serious consequences can be avoided if they reach the action threshold, they are motivated to act even if no one is sure exactly what the real consequences will be if they fail to reach the threshold.

  • People are less motivated to act if they don’t know the amount of action needed (the threshold) even if the consequences of not meeting it are severe. Thus, the framing of the threat—and the confidence we have in its scientific basis—are critical in motivating people to act.


Brown, Thomas C.; Kroll, Stephan. 2017. Avoiding an uncertain catastrophe: Climate change mitigation under risk and wealth heterogeneity. Climatic Change. 141(2): 155-166. 

Principal Investigators: 
Principal Investigators - External: 
Stephan Kroll - Colorado State University
Research Location: