Understanding why people do what they do is central to advancing equitable and sustainable futures. Yet, theories about human action are fragmented across many social science disciplines, each with its own jargon and implicit assumptions. This fragmentation has hindered theory integration and accessibility of theories relevant to a given challenge. We synthesized human action theories from across the humanities and social sciences. We developed eight underlying assumptions—metatheories—that reveal a fundamental organization of human action theories. We describe each metatheory and the challenges that it best elucidates (illustrated with climate change examples). No single metatheory addresses the full range of factors and problems; only one treats interactions between factors. Our synthesis will help researchers, policymakers, and practitioners gain a multifaceted understanding of human action.


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