Design Principle

Focus on Human Behaviors

Focus on the conditions for cultivating positive aspects of human behaviors in relation to achieving human well-being and sustainability

Sustainable development is fundamentally about how humans can work together and learn together to solve problems regarding the things we collectively care about sustaining. That is, sustainability is about human cooperation and innovation, topics that have become central to the sciences studying the evolution of human behavior and culture (e.g. Waring, 2010; Muthukrishna & Henrich, 2016; Tomasello, 2009).

Such challenges of sustainable development are not fundamentally new to us humans. Throughout our evolutionary history, our species has been confronted time and again with challenges of collaboration, collective decision-making, and the sharing of limited resources. This is because our ancestors lived in groups where everyone was “in the same boat” - everyone was dependent on preserving the group and its resources, both natural and social. These challenges have significantly shaped the cognitive and social skills, as well as behaviors and cultures of our species.

However, the dynamic sustainability problems of this century require human cooperation and innovation on novel scales of social organization, as well as in more flexible and polycentric forms. This requires us to understand and further cultivate the conditions and evolved capacities for learning, working together, and flexibly exploring new ways to be. That is, we must harness our potential psychological and sociocultural flexibility towards global aims of human well-being, equality, and sustainability. (e.g. Henrich, 2016; Messner, Guarín, & Haun, 2013; Waring et al., 2015; Wilson, 2015; Wilson et al., 2014; Wilson, Ostrom, & Cox, 2013).

In this context, an understanding of the causes and consequences of human behavior, as well as of the causal relationships that have shaped our past, shape our present, and will shape our future, can help us understand today's challenges to human well-being and sustainable development. Understanding the context of these challenges is central to our capacities to evaluate possible solutions.

Thus, in the Global ESD design concept, our everyday experience of human behaviors serve as a focal point of instruction.

Exploring the causes of human behavior in the classroom offers further learning opportunities. Students of all grades, and humans in general, are very interested in human behavior - we experience it on a daily basis and we are constantly concerned with and imagine its causes and consequences. In addition, human behavior is implicitly or explicitly integrated in the curricula of many subjects, especially in biology, social studies, history, geography, and ethics.

The research questions, methods and findings of evolutionary anthropology, behavioral science, psychology, and sustainability sciences offer unique opportunities to address the causes and conseqeunces of human behavior in the classroom. They thus can contribute to a fascinating and interdisciplinary education that connects to our shared everyday experience and is relevant to pressing societal challenges.

Why do we humans behave, feel, think, interact the way we do, how are each of us different as individuals? How are we all similar? What do we have in common with other forms of life? What do these questions have to do with our future?

We translate key cross-species, cross-developmental and cross-cultural research on the nature of human behavior into classroom materials. We also synthesize key concepts, principles and converging insights from this research into the essential questions and understandings which provide the focus and common thread for classroom content, activities, and discussions.

Michael Tomasello reflecting on the question "What makes us human?" in this inspiring video.

"What makes us really different is our ability to put our heads together and to do things that neither one of us could do alone, to create new resources that neither of us could create alone. It's really all about communicating and collaborating and working together".

Evolving the Future: A Multilevel Plan for Sustainable Living

David Sloan Wilson describes his multilevel plan for sustainable development that integrates perspectives in complexity science and the evolutionary behavioral ecology of human cooperation to frame practical insights into networking and organizing diverse efforts in sustainability and education.


  • Henrich, J. (2016). The Secret of Our Success. How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press.
  • Messner, D., Guarín, A., & Haun, D. (2013). The Behavioural Dimensions of International Cooperation. Duisburg,Germany. Retrieved from
  • Muthukrishna, M., & Henrich, J. (2016). Innovation in the Collective Brain. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371(1690), 20150192.
  • Tomasello, M. (2009). Why we cooperate. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.
  • Waring, T. M. (2010). New evolutionary foundations: Theoretical requirements for a science of sustainability. Ecological Economics, 69(4), 718–730.
  • Waring, T. M., Kline, M. A., Brooks, J. S., Goff, S. H., Gowdy, J., Janssen, M. A., … Jacquet, J. (2015). A multilevel evolutionary framework for sustainability analysis. Ecology and Society, 20(2), art34.
  • Wilson, D. S. (2015). Does Altruism exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press.
  • Wilson, D. S., Ostrom, E., & Cox, M. E. (2013). Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 90, S21–S32.
  • Wilson, D. S., Hayes, S. C., Biglan, A., & Embry, D. D. (2014). Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37(4), 395–460.