A game theory perspective on Environmental Assessment: what games are played and what does this tell us about decision making rationality and legitimacy?

Alan Bond (Lead Author), Jenny Pope, Angus Morrison-Saunders, Francois Retief

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Game theory provides a useful theoretical framework to examine the decision process operating in the context of environmental assessment, and to examine the rationality and legitimacy of decision-making subject to Environmental Assessment (EA). The research uses a case study of the Environmental Impact Assessment and Sustainability Appraisal processes undertaken in England. To these are applied an analytical framework, based on the concept of decision windows to identify the decisions to be assessed. The conditions for legitimacy are defined, based on game theory, in relation to the timing of decision information, the behaviour type (competitive, reciprocal, equity) exhibited by the decision maker, and the level of public engagement; as, together, these control the type of rationality which can be brought to bear on the decision. Instrumental rationality is based on self-interest of individuals, whereas deliberative rationality seeks broader consensus and is more likely to underpin legitimate decisions. The results indicate that the Sustainability Appraisal process, conducted at plan level, is better than EIA, conducted at project level, but still fails to provide conditions that facilitate legitimacy. Game theory also suggests that Sustainability Appraisal is likely to deliver ‘least worst’ outcomes rather than best outcomes when the goals of the assessment process are considered; this may explain the propensity of such ‘least worst’ decisions in practice. On the basis of what can be learned from applying this game theory perspective, it is suggested that environmental assessment processes need to be redesigned and better integrated into decision making in order to guarantee the legitimacy of the decisions made.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)187-194
Number of pages8
JournalEnvironmental Impact Assessment Review
Early online date30 Jan 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2016


  • Game theory
  • environmental assessment
  • legitimacy
  • instrumental rationality
  • deliberative rationality
  • decision making

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