The proposed causal mechanisms for communication among resource users are numerous, ranging from their ability to share information to their ability to negotiate solutions to common problems and dilemmas.
However, what is less known is under what conditions these potential causal mechanisms are important and if, in cases when means other than communication were available, whether they would be more effective for the same purposes.One such alternative could be that instead of (or in addition to) users being reliant on within-group communication to acquire useful information, an intermediary – such as a public agency – could provide it instead.
Furthermore, the different causal mechanisms making communication beneficial might not be independent, neither in respect to each other, nor in respect to other externally imposed means to facilitate better environmental management, and not in with regard to different contextual factors. This study used laboratory experiments in an innovative way to explore these questions and specifically test the relative importance of communication in managing complex social-ecological systems characterized by common-pool resource dilemmas, ecological interdependencies, and asymmetric resource access – all characteristics being present simultaneously.
The authors found that when resources users are confronted with such a complex challenge, the ability to communicate increases individual and group performance significantly. A perhaps more surprising finding was the negative effect on overall outcomes that providing external information has on outcomes, when the users also have the ability to communicate.
By analysing the content of the conversations the authors suggest several possible explanations for why the combination of external information and user communication acts to increase individual cognitive load and drives intra-group competition, leading to a significant reduction in positive individual and group outcomes.