Daniel A. DeCaro, PhD (Associate Professor)

Photo of Daniel DeCaro

Decision Science

Sustainability / Social-Ecological Resilience

Cooperative Decision-Making

Institutional Psychology 

Psychological & Brain Sciences Urban & Public Affairs | 

daniel.decaro@louisville.edu | (502) 852-1166

Curriculum Vitae


POSTDOC (Political Economy, Institutional Analysis, Social-Ecological Systems and Sustainability). Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Indiana University - Bloomington (2010-2013)

PhD (Decision Science, Social Cognition): Miami University (2010)

BA (Psychology, Philosophy: Double major, Honors): Western Kentucky University (2005)

  • Visiting Scholar (Political Psychology): Summer Institute in Political Psychology, Stanford University (2008)

Research Interests

Institutional Psychology | Decision Science/Behavioral Economics | Societal Cooperation | Environmental Governance: Sustainability & Resilience | Democracy & Self-Governance (State-Reinforced Self-Governance) | Public Policy, Rule Enforcement/Compliance

To understand human behavior, we must understand the social systems (institutions, governments) that people create and act within. To understand institutions and government, we must understand human behavior (motivation, perception, decisions).

I am an interdisciplinary social scientist. My research examines fundamental motivational and decision-making processes involved in societal cooperation and human governance, especially in the domains of sustainability, resilience (adaptation), and societal dilemmas.

  • How do people make decisions about governance and public policies, and what motivates people to cooperate, in order to solve difficult societal problems? 
  • How do democracies function, and how can democratic governance be improved? For example, what is the proper role of government, and its role in facilitating democratic self-governance among members of the public. 
  • How can we promote adaptation, sustainability, and resilience of social-ecological systems and resources? 

Research Labs

I direct two integrated research labs. The Constitutional and Cooperative Decision-Making (CCDM) Lab examines human motivation and decision-making processes involved in societal conflict, cooperation, and governance, within the context of social-ecological dilemmas. We examine human behavior from the perspective of humans as constitutional decision-makers, which govern themselves and society by creating institutions (rules, rule systems) and social contracts (e.g., agreements, constitutions). We seek to understand the social cognitive and behavioral foundations of societal cooperation and governance. The State-Reinforced Self-Governance and Adaptive Social-Ecological Systems (SRSG/ASES) Lab seeks to understand the legal and institutional foundations of effective environmental governance and societal resilience and sustainability, within our complex and dynamic world. We examine the formal laws and informal practices that govern society, the configuration(s) of governance systems, and the adaptive and transformative capacities of humans and their governance systems to manage complex social-ecological dilemmas that affect human welfare and ecological integrity. 

Both of these labs are grounded in the conceptual and analytical traditions of Ostrom Political Economy, as well as interdisciplinary integrations of psychological science, political science, law, and ecological resilience.

Research Grants

Legal Design Principles of Government-Supported Adaptation: Designing Effective Decentralization Programs in Cities and Vital Water Social-Ecological Systems, (Oct 2018 – Present).National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) & National Science Foundation DBI-1639145. 

  • DeCaro (Lead PI), with Co-PI Edella Schlager (University of Arizona)

Psychosocial, Motivational, and Cooperative Effects of Communication, Enforcement, and Participatory Decision Making in Resource Dilemmas. National Science Foundation (NSF), Decision, Risk, and Management Sciences Program of the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (Award #1658608), $690,551 (2017-2023). 

  • DeCaro (Lead PI), with Co-PIs Marco Janssen and Allen Lee (ASU).
  • Featured on UofL Today with Mark Hebert (10 minutes). Click here to listen.

Learning How the Community Leads: Evaluating and Informing City-Based Participatory Engagement in West Louisville. Cooperative Consortium for Transdisciplinary Social Justice Research, University of Louisville, $7500 (2017-2022), $7500 (2018-2019).

  • Angela Storey (Anthropology), Daniel DeCaro (Psychology and Urban & Public Affairs), David Johnson (Public Health), Allison Smith (Louisville Metro Government), Lauren Heberle (Center for Environmental Policy & Management), and Jeremy Jackson (undergraduate fellow).

Selected Publications

Democracy, Enforcement, and Cooperation (Resource Sustainability)

Enforcement Systems Must Be Legitimized: Rule-enforcement, economic sanctions, penalties, and social sanctions (e.g., shaming) backfire if they are not legitimized. Legitimization typically occurs by fair/autonomy-supportive decision-making procedures (e.g., democratic creation, vote). Communication is the basis for self-governance and democracy; therefore, communication must be open, fair (truthful, unbiased), and democratic in nature. 

DeCaro, D.A., Janssen, M.A., & Lee, A. (2021). Motivational Foundations of Communication, Voluntary Cooperation, and Self-Governance in a Resource Dilemma. Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychologyhttps://doi.org/10.1016/j.cresp.2021.100016

Janssen, M.A., DeCaro, D.A., & Lee, A. (accepted). An agent-based model of the interaction between inequality, trust, and communication in common pool experiments.The Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulations, 25(4):3. DOI: 10.18564/jasss.4922

DeCaro, D. A., Janssen, M. A., & Lee, A. (2015). Synergistic effects of voting and enforcement on internalized motivation to cooperate in a resource dilemma. Judgment and Decision Making, 10(6), 511-537. http://journal.sjdm.org/15/15529/jdm15529.pdf

  • Featured in a Podcast, Brian Kissell's The Methodology for Psychology Podcast (click to download)

 (Click image to see full Science Comic Abstract)

Graphic depiction of DeCaro et al (2021) laboratory experiment 

Faustian Bargains, Procedural Utility (Value/Preference for Freedom of Choice)

Decision-Makers Value Freedom of Choice but may Sacrifice it for Economic Security. Democratic individuals often prefer freedom of choice and get more "utility" (e.g., satisfaction) from financial outcomes they earn by making choices themselves. However, when they feel threatened by significant economic crisis (or losses), they become more willing to sacrifice their freedom to coercive leaders (e.g., bosses, governments) for security. Many factors (e.g., individual, cultural, contextual) affect these preferences. By understanding how people make these decisions, we can better describe human behavior in society and inform the design of more effective democracies and public policy.

DeCaro, D.A., DeCaro, M.S., Hotaling, J.M., & Appel, R. (2022). Formalizing the fundamental Faustian bargain: Inefficacious decision-makers sacrifice their freedom of choice to coercive leaders for economic security. PLoS ONE 17(9), e0275265. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0275265

DeCaro., D.A., DeCaro, M.S., Hotaling, J.M., & Johnson, J.G. (2020). Procedural and economic utility in consequentialist choice: Trading freedom of choice to minimize financial losses. Judgment and Decision Making, 15(4), 517-533.  http://journal.sjdm.org/12/12425/jdm12425.pdf

Humanistic Rational Choice Theory

People's decisions are fundamentally motivated by social-psychological needs for procedural justice, belonging, and equity - not just narrow self-determination, security, and economic welfare: People prefer social, economic, and institutional (e.g., organizational, governmental) systems that satisfy these needs, and they cooperate better when these needs are met.


DeCaro., D. A. (2018). Humanistic rational choice and compliance motivation in complex societal dilemmas. (Pages 126-147). In S. Siddiki, S. Espinosa, and T. Heikkila (Eds), Contextualizing Compliance in the Public Sector: Individual Motivations, Social Processes, and Institutional DesignRoutledge. 

DeCaro., D. A. (2019). Humanistic rational choice: understanding the fundamental motivations that drive self-organization and cooperation in commons dilemmas.In B. Hudson, J. Rosenbloom, and D. Cole (Eds), Routledge Handbook of the Study of the CommonsRoutledge.

  (Click image to see the full Science Comic Abstract)

Graphic depiction of HRCT and brief conceptual history of rational choice theory from Hobbes to Elinor and Vincent Ostrom

State-Reinforced Self-Governance Framework 

Governments can Promote Adaptive Solutions to Complex Social-Ecological Dilemmas by Enabling Self-Governance/Co-Production: Governments can increase the adaptive capacity of society by formally providing individuals, organizations, and collectives (groups, multi-organizational collaborators) sufficient and appropriate levels of authority, responsibility, and operational resources to communicate, share decisions, innovate, create new institutions, hold key actors accountable, and generally problem-solve for mutual benefit. Such arrangements must also have balanced mechanisms for stability (to ensure predictability, security) and flexibility (to permit necessary change). This work builds on Elinor (e.g., 1990, 2010) and Vincent Ostrom's (e.g., 1994) foundational research on cooperative federalism, co-production, and self-governance, as well as resilience science. 

DeCaro, D. A. , Chaffin, B. C., Schlager, E., Garmestani, A. S. , & Ruhl, J. B. (2017). Legal and institutional foundations of adaptive environmental governance.Ecology and Society 22(1):32. [online] https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-09036-220132

DeCaro, D. A. , Arnold, C. A., Boamah, E., & Garmestani, A. S. (2017). Understanding and applying principles of social cognition and decision making in adaptive environmental governance.Ecology and Society 22(1):33. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-09154-220133

DeCaro, D. A., & Stokes, M. K. (2013). Public participation and institutional fit: a social–psychological perspective. Ecology and Society, 18(4), 40. [online] http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-05837-180440

DeCaro, D. A., & Stokes, M. (2008). Social-psychological principles of community-based conservation and conservancy motivation: attaining goals within an autonomy-supportive environment.Conservation Biology, 22(6), 1443-1451

Case Studies and Applied Public Policy

DeCaro, D.A., DeCaro, M.S. (2022). Politically-polarized perceptions of governmental autonomy-support impact internal motivations to comply with COVID-19 safety guidelines. Motivation and Emotionhttps://rdcu.be/cTrvO

Sarr, S., Hayes, B., & DeCaro, D.A. (2021). Applying Ostrom's Institutional Analysis and Development framework, and design principles for co-production, to pollution management in Louisville's Rubbertown, Kentucky.  Land Use Policy, 104, 105383. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2021.105383

 (Click image to see the full Science Comic Abstract)

Graphic depiction of DeCaro and DeCaro (2022)

Civic Education via Exploratory Learning in Social Dilemma Games

Bush, J., DeCaro, M.S., & DeCaro, D.A. (2023). Playing a Social Dilemma Game as an Exploratory Learning Activity Before Instruction Improves Conceptual Understanding. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Appliedhttps://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000470

Courses Taught


  • Reasoning and Decision Making (Psy 314)


  • Behavioral Dimensions of Sustainability (Sust 202)
  • Sustainable Social-Ecological Systems (Grad)
  • Sustainable Societal Systems (Sust 403)
  • Introduction to Sustainability (Grad)

Public Resources

Podcasts, Panel Discussions, & Interviews

Instructional Materials for Educators

  • LESSON PLANS: Psychological (Behavioral) Aspects of Sustainability (College and Elementary School Level) (click to download)
  • SYLLABUS: Reasoning and Decision Making (Interdisciplinary Decision Science), (College Level) (click to download)

Sustainability Policy

  • Vision: Social Sustainability Guidelines and Metrics for Transportation in Louisville: A Proposal for TARC's APTA Sustainability Commitment (download)

Tool for Community-Based Collective Action

  • Diagnostic Questions for Solving Complex Social-Ecological Problems: A Tool for Community-Based Collective Action (download)