Goal frames and sustainability transitions: how cognitive lock-ins can impede crop diversification

Chiara Sophia Weituschat*, Stefano Pascucci, Valentina Cristiana Materia, Peter Tamas, Ruth de Jong, Jacques Trienekens

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


Transitions towards more sustainable agricultural systems are often characterised by ‘lock-ins’, understood as self-reinforcing mechanisms that reproduce the status quo and impede change. While socioeconomic, technological and institutional lock-ins have been widely used to understand processes of sustainable transitions in agri-food systems, the role of so-called cognitive lock-ins is still under-investigated. In this study, we focus on how institutional settings create cognitive lock-ins in farmers’ decision-making related to the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices. We apply goal framing for environmental behaviour and transition theory in explaining how socio-technical conditions may shape farmer’s decision-making. Empirically, we focus on the example of diversifying crop rotations with legumes as an established strategy to increase biodiversity and soil health, and reduce agrochemical use, emissions and pollution, which still remains rare in European agriculture. We use two cases in the Atlantic pedo-climatic region, Cornwall, UK, and Gelderland, Netherlands. Using in-depth interview data with farmers and extensive supplementary secondary data, we explore how context-specific socio-technical settings interact with farmers’ normative, gain-oriented and hedonic goal frames to shape the (un-)desirability of crop diversification with legumes. This creates conditions recognisable as cognitive lock-ins: the context of farmers’ decision-making creates cognitive processes that drastically reduce the perceived viability of alternative agricultural practices. Our findings in this case suggest the framework developed for this study may help to identify regionally specific, as well as common, barriers and solutions to crop diversification and comparable practices that are relevant to transitions towards sustainability in agri-food systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2203-2219
JournalSustainability Science
Issue number6
Early online date19 May 2022
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2022


  • Crop diversification
  • Goal framing
  • Legumes
  • Lock-in
  • Sustainability transition


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