, Volume 6, Issue 5, pp 493–502 | Cite as

Slow Response of Societies to New Problems: Causes and Costs

  • Marten Scheffer
  • Frances Westley
  • William Brock


Human societies are confronted with a continuous stream of new problems. Many of these problems are caused by a limited sector of society but cause “spillover costs” to society as a whole. Here we show how a combination of mechanisms tends to delay effective regualtion of such situations. Obviously, problems may remain undetected for some time, especially if they are unlike those experienced in the past. However, it is at least as important to address the dynamics preceding the solution because societies that are systematically slow in suppressing problems in the early phases will pay a high overall cost. Here we show how a combination of mechanisms tends to delay effective regulation. Obviously, problems may remain undetected for some time, especially if it is unlike those experienced in the past. However, even if a problem is recognized by experts, the time lag before society in general recognizes that something should be done can be long because of the hysteresis in change of opinion. This causes abrupt but late shifts in opinion, much as described for Kuhn’s paradigm shifts. We use a mathematical model and review empirical evidence to show that this phenomenon will be particularly pronounced for complex problems and in societies that have strong social control, whereas key individuals such as charismatic leaders may catalyze earlier opinion shifts, reducing the time lag between problem and solution. An opinion shift may also be inhibited by downplay of a problem by a credible authority and by competition for attention by simultaneously occurring problems. Even if a problem is generally recognized, actual regulation may come late. We argue that this last phase of delay tends to be longer if a central decision-making authority is lacking and if disproportionately powerful stakeholders that benefit from the unregulated status quo are involved.


Public Opinion Credible Authority Collective Action Problem General Recognition Alternative Stable State 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The ideas presented in this article originated at workshops of the Resilience Alliance. We are grateful to Buzz Holling for creating and inspiring this network funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

Supplementary material


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag New York, Inc. 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marten Scheffer
    • 1
  • Frances Westley
    • 2
  • William Brock
    • 3
  1. 1.Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management GroupWageningen Agricultural University, P.O. Box 8080, 6700DD WageningenThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Faculty of ManagementMcGill University, 1001 Sherbrooke St. West, Montreal, Quebec H3A IG5Canada
  3. 3.Department of EconomicsUniversity of Wisconsin, 1180 Observatory Drive, Madison, Wisconsin 53706USA

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