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Wicked problems, reductive tendency, and the formation of (non-)opportunity beliefs

Executive Summary
Wicked problems persistently cause human suffering, endanger wildlife, and degrade the
environment, and are defined by their inherent complex, uncertain, and evaluative nature.
Because of these interrelated and mutually reinforcing characteristics, they are notoriously
difficult to solve. We explain how the nature of wicked problems affects the way in which beliefs
about opportunities to solve them are formed, and why these beliefs often prevent prospective
entrepreneurs from correctly judging not only the feasibility of acting on them, but whether such
an opportunity exists at all. Drawing on this research context we also help explain how
unfounded entrepreneurial opportunity beliefs are formed more broadly. That is, prospective
entrepreneurs making the Type I error of falsely identifying an opportunity when there is none.
We draw on the ‘reductive tendency’, a process through which individuals simplify
complex systems into cognitively manageable representations. While simplified representations
offer benefits, such as quicker decision-making, such representations are often inaccurate as they
overlook the complexities of the problem at hand. We argue that the reductive tendency can
make wicked problems appear easier to solve than they are in reality, leading to the formation of
what we call non-opportunity beliefs; the conviction that one can solve a problem, when in fact
the objective conditions required to do so are absent. We further argue that prior experiential
knowledge makes an entrepreneur less susceptible to the reductive tendency and,
consequentially, less likely to form a non-opportunity belief.
Our work offers contributions to both theory and practice. We extend the critical realist
perspective on non-opportunities by explicating the mechanisms through which non-opportunity
beliefs are formed. We further introduce and conceptualize problem uncertainty as a specific
form of state uncertainty where the exact definition, boundary conditions, and causes of a
problem are unknown or unknowable. This offers a more focused conceptualization of the
uncertainty inherent to wicked problems that also specifically identifies problems as the starting
point of all entrepreneurial opportunity. Our theorizing is also of practical importance since, in
the context of socially/environmentally focused entrepreneurship, ill-conceived attempts to
address wicked problems can have serious negative consequences for people and ecosystems that
are already among the most vulnerable. By highlighting the susceptibility of entrepreneurs to the
reductive tendency, we expand awareness of an avoidable and consequential pitfall in the
entrepreneurship process. We further offer a means of circumventing the reductive tendency
through the acquisition of pertinent knowledge.
1. Introduction
There is growing interest in the role entrepreneurs can and should play in addressing the
world’s most difficult social and environmental challenges (Saebi, Foss and Linder, 2019).
Problems such as generational poverty, climate change, and terrorism are both persistent and
difficult to solve, in part because they are “wicked”. Wicked problems, commonly linked to
society’s grand challenges, are characterized by their complex, uncertain, and evaluative nature
(Ferraro, Etzion and Gehman, 2015; Reinecke and Ansari, 2016). Interestingly, identifying these
long-standing, widespread, and highly publicized problems and many of their negative effects is
easy; yet understanding their definitions, boundary conditions, and causes is not (Dentoni, Bitzer
and Pascucci, 2016; Farrell and Hooker, 2013; Gioia, 1992; Rittel and Weber, 1973).
Prior literature on the entrepreneurs that engage with these types of problems has focused
on the prosocial motivation that drives them (e.g., Conger, 2012; Mair and Noboa, 2006; Miller,
Grimes, McMullen, and Vogus, 2012; Thomson, Alvy and Lees, 2000; Waddock and Steckler,
2000; Wry and York, 2017). However, we know relatively little about how they form the belief
that there is an opportunity to solve these seemingly intractable problems, often with little or no
evidence to suggest such an opportunity exists. Despite a bias in the literature and popular press
toward lionizing the heroic social entrepreneur (Nicholls, 2010), examples of incredible naïveté
and seemingly needless failure on the part of well-meaning entrepreneurs are common
(Bornstein, 2013; Starr, 2016). One of the foundational arguments in our field is that
entrepreneurial opportunities disrupt the status quo (Schumpeter, 1934). As a result, our focus as
a field has long been on why a relatively small group of individuals act on opportunities while
others do not (Venkataraman, 1997); that is, explaining why entrepreneurs are able to identify
opportunities while most of us fail to do so, essentially committing a Type II error.
Rarely do we consider how and why unfounded entrepreneurial opportunity beliefs
(which we also refer to as non-opportunity beliefs) are formed. That is, prospective entrepreneurs
making the Type I error of falsely identifying an opportunity when there is none (for exceptions
see: McMullen and Dimov, 2013; Ramoglou and Tsang, 2016). In the context of
socially/environmentally focused entrepreneurship, this is also of practical importance since ill-
conceived attempts to address wicked problems can have serious negative consequences for
people and ecosystems that are already among the most vulnerable (Khan, Munir and Willmott,
2007). Kahn et al. (2007) offer a poignant example of this occurrence by demonstrating how
attempts to eliminate child labor in the production of soccer balls led to a drastic decrease in
female workforce participation and increase in poverty among Pakistani communities.
The purpose of this paper is to therefore explain how the nature of wicked problems
affects the way in which beliefs about opportunities to solve them are formed, and why these
beliefs often prevent prospective entrepreneurs from correctly judging not only the feasibility of
acting on them, but whether such an opportunity exists at all.To explain why prospective
entrepreneurs make Type I errors we draw from the literature on the reductive tendency, which
has its roots in education and psychology research (Coulson, Feltovich, and Spiro, 1989;
Feltovich, Hoffman, Woods, and Roesler, 2004). The reductive tendency is a process through
which individuals learning about and interpreting complex phenomena overly simplify their
understandings of it (Coulson et al., 1989; Hmelo-Silver and Pfeffer, 2004). We propose it is this
over-simplification that can result in Type I errors.
Our theorizing has implications for the literatures on entrepreneurial opportunities,
knowledge, social entrepreneurship, and the entrepreneurship literature more broadly. With
wicked problems as a backdrop, we bring a new focus to problems as the basis for opportunity.
We introduce and conceptualize problem uncertainty as a specific form of state uncertainty and,
drawing on this conceptualization and the reductive tendency, develop mechanisms that explain
the formation of beliefs based on non-opportunities. Through the development of these
mechanisms, we advance the extant dialogue and theorizing on opportunity belief formation. An
outcome of our theorizing is an explanation of why many social entrepreneurs addressing wicked
problems fail to achieve their aspirations.
2. Wicked Problems and (Non-)Opportunity
McMullen argues that “Opportunities consist of environmental conditions (situations)
that are interpreted as opportunities when those conditions allow advancement of goals.”
(McMullen, 2015:659). Applying a realist perspective on opportunity to this definition
(Ramoglou and Tsang, 2016), we view entrepreneurial opportunities as the propensity of goals to
be actualized into desired outcomes through entrepreneurial action. In this view, propensities
exist independently of potential entrepreneurs (Ramoglou and Tsang, 2016). Within the
traditional, for-profit literature, propensities generally take the form of “unmet or possible market
demand that can be actualized into profits” (Ramoglou and Tsang: 413). For the purposes of our
theorizing, we focus specifically on opportunities for which the goal is to alleviate the suffering
and damage caused by wicked social and environmental problems (Dorado and Ventresca,
2013)1. We focus on how individuals form the belief that, by acting entrepreneurially, they can
alleviate these problems and why they do so even when no viable opportunity to do so exists.
Wicked problems persistently cause human suffering, endanger wildlife, and degrade the
environment. They are notoriously difficult to solve because of interrelated and mutually
reinforcing characteristics that they all share (Rittel and Weber, 1973). Ferraro and his colleagues
distill these characteristics into three dimensions, saying wicked problems are: complex,
uncertain, and evaluative (Ferraro et al., 2015). The complexity of wicked problems stems from
their systemic, interconnected, and non-linear nature. They involve dysfunction at the
institutional or network level (Dorado and Ventresca, 2013; Sterman, 2001) and frequently span
national, social, and industry boundaries (Reinecke and Ansari, 2016). This makes understanding
their relationship to the work of individual actors extremely difficult (Farrell and Hooker, 2013;
Sterman, 2001; Waddock, 2008). Furthermore, understanding how a wicked problem may
manifest in one locale, culture, or social situation versus another is problematic given the
presence of different institutions, networks, and cultural differences. Wicked problems also tend
to be entangled with other systemic problems that are themselves made up of multiple,
interconnected problems (Gioia, 1992; Reinecke and Ansari, 2016; Rittel and Webber, 1973).
Compounding these factors is the nonlinear nature of wicked problems, where “cause and effect
relationships are either unknown or highly uncertain” (Dentoni, et al., 2016:36). For example, a
1 Wicked problems are not a prerequisite for the presence of social entrepreneurship; instead this is a boundary
condition of our theorizing. Definitional debates abound in the social entrepreneurship literature (Dacin, Dacin, and
Matear, 2010; Short, Moss, and Lumpkin, 2009). We acknowledge that many kinds of opportunities to affect
positive change are possible.
social entrepreneur trying to break cycles of generational poverty in U.S. rust belt cities through
education or job creation would begin to uncover a web of other causal factors, such as
unresolved issues of race and class, as well as ambiguity around the impact that changing one
factor would have on the others, or on generational poverty as a whole. Taken together, these
factors contribute to a deep complexity that makes it difficult to either identify the root causes of
wicked problems or to break them down to the level where the efficacy of individual action can
be imagined. Likewise, identifying both the boundary conditions of wicked problems and the
relationships between their facets is exceptionally difficult, as is tracing their causes or predicting
the likely outcomes of possible remedies.
Second, wicked problems present potential entrepreneurs with “radical” uncertainty
(Ferraro et al., 2015:364). Because of their specifically nonlinear and interrelated complexity,
wicked problems “have no closed form definition” (Dentoni et al., 2016:36). Ironically, the
‘answers’ to wicked problems and the potential future value in solving them fundamentally are
known (Rayner, 2006; Rittel and Webber, 1973). For example, it is ‘obvious’ that people
experiencing food insecurity need adequate access to healthy food. It is the near impossibility of
understanding the problem itself—that is, the full breadth of the causal mechanisms, boundaries,
and web of interrelated problems that define food insecurity—that make pursuing this ‘obvious’
opportunity highly uncertain, and indeed, call into question whether such an opportunity exists at
all. This is compounded by the high stakes and often irreversible consequences of attempts to
solve wicked problems that are often “one-shot operations” for which “every attempt to reverse a
decision to correct for the undesired consequences poses another set of wicked problems, which
are in turn subject to the same dilemmas.” (Rittel and Webber, 1973:163).
Third, the complexity and uncertainty of wicked problems are further complicated by
their evaluative nature. Wicked problems concern myriad of individuals and groups within
society with different understandings of what success means, making it challenging to identify a
uniform understanding of how to address wicked problems and what a successful outcome
entails. It is, therefore, unsurprising that “human values and norms can become inextricably
intertwined with [wicked] problem formulation and problem resolution” (Farrell and Hooker,
2013:686). With “no immediate and no ultimate test” of any possible solution to a wicked
problem, consensus about its efficacy and appropriateness is extremely unlikely (Rittel and
Webber, 1973:139). For example, passing legislation to hamper child labor in developing
countries is simultaneously celebrated by those who see the practice as deplorable and
denounced by others who believe it will prevent children and families from sustaining
themselves; each group having conflicting arguments on the virtue and true costs of the practice
(cf. Khan et al., 2007). In some cases, solutions to wicked problems are even deemed to be worse
than symptoms of the initial problem (Churchman, 1967; Dorado and Ventresca, 2013). In sum,
the evaluative nature of wicked problems virtually assures that understanding their causes,
relationships to other problems and phenomena, and potential solutions that compound their
complexity and uncertainty are complicated. Together, the complex, uncertain, and evaluative
nature of wicked problems means that they are extremely difficult to understand, at least at face
Due in part to this nature of wicked problems, our contention is that the propensity for
entrepreneurs to identify appropriate opportunities to solve wicked problems is lower than
popular narratives about heroic social entrepreneurs imply. In arguing this, we align with a realist
perspective (Mole, 2010; Mole and Mole, 2010; Ramoglou, 2013; Ramoglou and Tsang, 2016;
Ramoglou and Zyglidopoulos, 2015) which holds that, while the realization of opportunities
requires entrepreneurial actors, “…the existence of entrepreneurial opportunities remains
independent of the thoughts, imagination, or actions of any given entrepreneur, entrepreneurial
team, or entrepreneurial organization” (Ramoglou and Tsang, 2016:419). The essential idea here
underpinning our arguments is that, in addition to the prospective entrepreneur’s desire to solve
wicked problems and willingness to act, objective conditions that make solving them possible
must be in place for an opportunity to exist.2 Ramoglou and Tsang (2016) argue that the absence
of these conditions characterizes the domain of non-opportunity, likening it to toiling over soil
where no seeds exist. These objective limitations may apply to all prospective entrepreneurs
(e.g., no cure for AIDS currently exists) or may be specific to an individual (e.g., needed drugs
are patented by another company). We argue that, because of the factors we outline above (e.g.,
institutional voids; complications related to social, cultural, and geopolitical boundaries; conflict
over the value and appropriateness of possible solutions; etc.), the objective conditions necessary
for opportunity within the domain of wicked problems may be missing. Moreover, because the
definition, boundary conditions, and causes of wicked problems are so difficult to understand,
the risk of individual actors misjudging the presence or absence of these conditions is quite high.
To be clear, we are not implying that it is impossible to solve wicked problems. Instead, we argue
that many prospective entrepreneurs in this context make Type I errors, forming beliefs about
opportunities to solve wicked problems where, in fact, no opportunity exists. In the remainder of
this paper, we draw from literature on opportunity beliefs, non-opportunity, and reductive
2 Importantly, Ramoglou and Tsang define opportunities not as empirical entities but as propensities (Ramoglou and
Tsang, 2016; 2018). While scholars espousing the “discovery” view of opportunity disagree with this ontological
perspective, they do espouse similar ideas on this topic. Per Davidsson’s conceptualization of “external enablers”,
for example, also recognizes the essential role of objective conditions in making entrepreneurial action possible
(Davidsson, 2015).
tendency to explain why formation of these non-opportunity beliefs occurs. Our theoretical
model is illustrated in Figure 1.
Insert Figure 1 about here
3. The Reductive Tendency
To explain how prospective entrepreneurs form the sometimes-mistaken belief they have
an opportunity to solve wicked problems, we turn first to the reductive tendency which provides
insights into how individuals understand complex problems. The reductive tendency is a process
through which individuals simplify complex systems into cognitively manageable
representations (Feltovich et al., 2004). Research on the reductive tendency is generally
conducted using cognitive flexibility theory, which focuses on the nature of learning in complex
and ill-structured domains (Rhodes and Rozell, 2017; Spiro and Jehng, 1990). Research on the
theory is largely concerned with how information is presented to accommodate and produce
cognitive flexibility. Yet, some scholars working in this area focus on the reasons why concepts
are complex and the systematic ways in which learners misunderstand them (e.g., Feltovich et
al., 2004; Hmelo-Silver and Pfeffer, 2004).
The reductive tendency has been supported in research on education, comprehension, and
cognition in fields such as biomedicine (Coulson et al., 1989), law (Feltovich, Spiro, Coulson,
and Myers-Kelson1995), physics (McCloskey, 1983; Clement, 1982), climatology (Collins and
Gentner, 1983), and engineering (Feltovich, Hoffman, Woods, and Roesler, 2004). These
scholars have identified a common tendency to over-simplify complex concepts, despite there
being significant costs to the misconstruing of complexities (e.g., heart surgeries; murder trials).
They have concluded that many misconceptions concern commonly held mental processes
through which learners accept an overly simplified understanding. For example, when faced with
complex concepts, individuals are often inclined to treat dynamic concepts as static, or to
generalize across dissimilar domains (Feltovich et al., 1995).
Multiple reasons have been offered as to why reduction is so common. For example, the
ability to reason about complexity requires a range of components to be prioritized to understand
how they relate within a system. As this is difficult, individuals adopt understandings that are
simpler in nature, thereby reducing the perceived complexity of a problem (Feltovich, Spiro, and
Coulson, 1993). Others suggest that the tendency is a habitual carry-over from the rudimentary
and routinized way that beginners are introduced to a concept (Gibson and Spelke, 1983). For
many individuals, simpler conceptual forms are often employed to introduce a topic (Feltovich et
al., 1989). This may, however, set up path-dependent learning that relies on reduction as a crutch
(Feltovich, Coulson and Spiro, 1986). Another argument arises from motivational psychology
and the finding that people prefer a middle level of complexity in their lives; concepts that are
too simple are deemed boring, while concepts that are too complex are off-putting and do not
attract engagement (Berlyne, 1971).
Research has identified 11 dimensions or manifestations of the reductive tendency
(Feltovich et al., 2004; Hmelo-Silver and Pfeffer, 2004). We organize these into three categories.
The first pertains to simplifying processes and entails four dimensions: continuous processes are
simplified into ones with discrete steps; interactive processes that depend on each other are
simplified to be independent and separated; concurrent processes are simplified to be sequential;
and nonlinear explanatory relationships are simplified into linear ones. The second category
pertains to perspective restrictions. This category describes situations in which individuals
minimize the importance of, or ignore altogether, facets or manifestations of phenomena. This
category includes three dimensions whereby individuals simplify: concepts necessitating
multiple representations to single ones; phenomena with numerous and ambiguous causal
mechanisms to ones with simple and clear causal agents, and; concepts with covert or abstract
elements to surface-level, apparent ones. The third category contains four dimensions that pertain
to forming standardized representations of phenomena. It captures situations in which individuals
simplify: concepts necessitating dynamic understanding of inputs into static ones; heterogeneous
schemes or facets of a phenomena into uniform or highly similar; context-sensitive phenomena
into universal ones; and regularity to replace situations that are characterized by asymmetric,
inconsistent, or complex patterns. Table 1 presents each of the three categories and 11
dimensions, explains each dimension, exemplifies a wicked problem to which the dimension
may pertain, references a paper that demonstrates the dimension (even if they employed different
theories to express them), and provides two examples of social entrepreneurship (or highly
related, e.g., social innovation) studies for each of the three categories.
Insert Table 1 about here
The reductive tendency literature is clear: not all individuals succumb to oversimplification
via one or more of these dimensions. Those with a great degree of cognitive flexibility, for
example, may comprehend complex phenomena. Likewise, we suggest that not all prospective
entrepreneurs will succumb to the reductive tendency in the face of wicked problems. However,
wicked problems create scenarios in which prospective entrepreneurs are inclined to mentally
create and accept a reductive understanding of the problem. Our rationale is that the very things
that make wicked problems, wicked - that they are complex, uncertain, and evaluative - are the
same things that facilitate the reductive tendency. A cornerstone of the reductive tendency
literature is that complexity substantially burdens the working memory and mental capacity of
the individual (Graesser, 1999; Narayanan and Hegarty, 1998). Understanding a complex system
necessitates constructing a network of concepts and principles about a domain that represents
key facets and the interrelationships among macro and micro structures of the system (Hmelo-
Siver and Pfeffer, 2004). This provides incentive for individuals to formulate a simpler
conception of a phenomenon, in order to reduce the mental burden. Regarding uncertainty, the
reductive tendency literature demonstrates that learners are averse to concepts with which they
are highly unfamiliar (Jacobson, 2001; Resnick and Wilensky, 1998). Reapplying concepts one
knows well is predictable, comforting, and less mentally taxing, whereas pondering the multitude
of potential outcomes through probabilistic, stochastic, or other methods offer discomfort and
mental hardships (Jacobson, 2001). Thus, many individuals fall back on generating an
understanding of the problem that adheres to simple concepts related to previously and easily
garnered knowledge. Regarding the evaluative nature of wicked problems, the reductive
tendency literature finds that ill-structured domains are conducive to the reductive tendency. Ill-
structured domains are those in which applying knowledge varies significantly, and any given
case is atypical (Spiro et al., 1988). In essence, applying knowledge is challenging in ill-
structured environments, thus necessitating idiosyncratic evaluations and solutions (Feltovich et
al., 1995).
The widely acknowledged failure of PlayPumps International (Kim and Perreault-Henry,
2018a; 2018b) provides a rich illustration of the reductive tendency in the context of a wicked
problem, access to clean water. PlayPumps manufactured a water pump that doubled as a
children’s merry-go-round. PlayPumps attracted high-profile investors including $16.4 million
from a US public-private partnership (Pump Industry Analyst, 2006). The idea was simple: as
children played they would also be pumping underground water to the surface. However, the
organization faced a number of obstacles that were not adequately considered by its founder,
including, among others: scarcity of underground water; underestimating the volume of water
that could be pumped by children through play; underestimating the cost of installation; a
shortage of suitable sites for installation; conflicts occurring between community members and
schools; a lack of interest from potential billboard advertisers, which would fund pump
maintenance; differing local conditions creating the need for design changes; and difficulty
finding qualified and reliable locals to install and maintain the pumps (Kim and Perreault-Henry,
2018a; 2018b). The situation was aptly articulated by Daniel Stellar, who writes for the Earth
Institute at Columbia University:
The failure of PlayPump[s] points to a huge problem in meeting water challenges simply
put, there is no panacea. Water problems are very complex and come in a multitude
of flavors. In some very specific situations, PlayPump[s] may be the right type of solution. In
most situations though, it is imperative to first really understand the problem and to then
design appropriate, tailored solutions. (Stellar, 2010: 1)
Based on our arguments, we offer our first proposition:
P1: Prospective entrepreneurs engaging with wicked problems are susceptible to
the reductive tendency because of the complex, uncertain, and evaluative nature of
such problems.
We next explain how the reductive tendency can lead to non-opportunity beliefs the
unfounded conviction that an opportunity exists in the context of wicked problems. We also
introduce in this section the concept of problem uncertainty and show how, through this
particular form of state uncertainty, the reductive tendency puts prospective entrepreneurs at risk
of forming non-opportunity beliefs.
4. Forming Non-Opportunity Beliefs to Solve Wicked Problems
Dominant conceptualizations of opportunity beliefs (i.e., belief that acting on an
opportunity will result in a desired end state, such as generating profit or benefiting society
[Wood, McKelvie, and Haynie, 2014]) focus on how uncertainty determines whether action and
effort will produce the desired results (Ramoglou and Tsang, 2016). For example, McMullen and
Shepherd (2006) focus on the role of doubt uncertainty resulting from not knowing whether
acting on the opportunity will lead to a desired end state, and the need for individuals to
overcome this doubt in order for them to act. Following Milliken (1987), they classify
uncertainty as addressing three broad questions “(1) What’s happening out there? (state
uncertainty), (2) How will it impact me? (effect uncertainty), and (3) What am I going to do
about it? (response uncertainty)” (McMullen and Shepherd, 2006:135). They suggest that,
inasmuch as it is linked to action (or the inhibition thereof), distinguishing between types of
uncertainty is relatively unimportant. All uncertainty, they argue, fuels doubt related to
knowledge (affecting perceptions of the degree of uncertainty) or motivation (affecting
willingness to bear that uncertainty) inhibiting opportunity beliefs and, subsequently, action to
pursue opportunity.
However, as we have shown, prospective entrepreneurs can and often do incorrectly
judge the conditions underlying wicked problems. To understand how these errors in judgment
may lead to Type I errors ― non-opportunity beliefs ― we return to Milliken’s classification and
reconceptualize the type of uncertainty that these individuals tend to misperceive. Because of
their complex, uncertain, and evaluative properties, wicked problems present a specific kind of
state uncertainty related to the unknowable nature of the problem itself, which we conceptualize
as problem uncertainty. The wicked problems literature touches on this type of uncertainty, yet it
remains undertheorized. Dietz and his colleagues (2003) refer to it as “the inherent
unpredictability in the systems” (p. 1908) while Ferraro and his colleagues refer to it in their
discussion of the complexity of wicked problems as, “many facts are known, but these facts
alone are not sufficient to provide a definitive basis for taking action” (2015:366). These
definitions seek to describe a broad and pervasive Knightian uncertainty in which “Actors cannot
even enumerate what the possible future states of the worlds may be, let alone assign
probabilities to them” (Ferraro et al., 2015:366). However, because of the future-oriented
outcome focus of Knightian uncertainty, the wicked problems literature stops short of explicitly
conceptualizing the immediate state uncertainty inherent in wicked problems. Formally, we
conceptualize problem uncertainty as a specific form of state uncertainty where the exact
definition, boundary conditions, and causes of a problem are unknown or unknowable. This
offers a more focused conceptualization of the uncertainty inherent in wicked problems that also
specifically identifies problems as the starting point of entrepreneurial opportunity.
Problem uncertainty directly influences how an actor understands the objective
conditions required for an opportunity to be actualized and their judgment about the extent to
which these conditions are present. In effect, problem uncertainty reshapes the “What’s
happening out there?” question with a problem-specific orientation “What problems are out there
and what is causing them?”. While the desired outcomes of solving a wicked problem are easy to
identify, its exact definition, boundary conditions, and causes are not. This underlies our
theorizing by explaining firstly how the nature of wicked problems affects the way in which
beliefs about opportunities to solve them are formed. It also explains why these beliefs often
prevent the entrepreneur from correctly judging not only the feasibility of acting on these beliefs,
but also whether such an opportunity exists at all.
We have suggested that, while wicked problems are easy to identify, their exact
definition, boundary conditions, and causes are not, thus creating a situation where prospective
entrepreneurs are susceptible to the reductive tendency [Proposition 1]. The resulting
simplification of wicked problems occurs by people misidentifying and failing to appreciate
problem uncertainty such that it may be unduly (albeit inadvertently) ignored. When this is the
case, entrepreneurs may fail to recognize the nature and magnitude of problem uncertainty.
Consequently, it becomes impossible not only to know whether the conditions to sustain a
venture to address the problem are present, but also to judge the existence of an opportunity to
solve the problem in light of those conditions. To explain the mechanism by which this
breakdown in judgment ability occurs (and non-opportunity beliefs are formed), we again draw
on a realist argument about how the existence of opportunities (i.e., their propensity to be
actualized) can be understood.
Ramoglou and Tsang suggest there are three “fundamental modes for making cognitive
contact with possibly real yet empirically unactualized propensities: imagining, believing, and
knowing” (2016:411). The distinction between the first two modes, what can be imagined by
prospective entrepreneurs and what they believe, is the belief that what is being imagined can
also be real. It is possible to imagine many outcomes without the accompanying belief that what
is being imagined is also genuinely possible (Ramoglou and Tsang, 2016). For example, while it
is easy to fantasize about potential ideas and their grandeur, we typically also realize the
limitations to what is possible. Imagination is insufficient for offering the experience one has
when believing one has identified as an opportunity. One must additionally trust that the
imaginative projection corresponds to a naturally possible world state.
The means of making these determinations is the prospective entrepreneur’s judgment or
the window through which he or she “sees” the opportunity (Ramoglou and Tsang, 2016:424). It
provides the final way to understand how non-opportunity beliefs about solving wicked problems
are formed. As prospective entrepreneurs consider what is imagined and what is possible, they
make sense of the objective conditions surrounding potential opportunities. However, as we have
shown, the nature of wicked problems affects both the propensity that an opportunity can be
possible and the likelihood that prospective entrepreneurs will unduly simplify their
understanding of the problem due to the reductive tendency. This simplification manifests as a
narrowing or even eliminating the entrepreneur’s ability to distinguish between imagining and
believing. In this way, the entrepreneur’s modes of imagining and believing collapse, as they
cannot accurately judge the objective conditions required to sustain a venture. By simplifying the
wicked problem, they risk believing what they imagine can also be real, thus increasing the
likelihood of forming a belief based on a non-opportunity. Figure 2 depicts the reductive
entrepreneur’s situation.
Having explained the mechanism by which the reductive tendency affects the prospective
entrepreneur’s judgment to shape non-opportunity beliefs, we offer our second proposition:
P2: The reductive tendency results in the simplification of wicked problems,
increasing the likelihood that prospective entrepreneurs form non-opportunity
Insert Figure 2 about here
We argue that, because an individual simplifies understandings of wicked problems, he or
she more easily imagines “a favorable state of the world to follow a course of action” (Ramoglou
and Tsang, 2016:424). This makes it difficult for prospective entrepreneurs to distinguish
between what should be left to imagination and what is possible, resulting in the potential
formation non-opportunity beliefs.
However, not all prospective entrepreneurs tackling wicked problems fall prey to the
reductive tendency and form beliefs based on non-opportunities. We focus on the role of
knowledge in mitigating the manifestation of the reductive tendency and the implications this has
for belief formation. We suggest that knowledge both enables prospective entrepreneurs to
understand the complex, uncertain and, evaluative nature of wicked problems, reducing the
likelihood they inadvertently simplify them, while also expanding the domain of what is
possible. Regarding the latter, it is important to remember the objective existence of
opportunities and the role that contextual factors play in constraining what is an opportunity for
some prospective entrepreneurs. Depending on context, an opportunity for one entrepreneur
could be a non-opportunity for others (McMullen and Shepherd, 2006). Knowledge, or more
precisely the lack of it, is one such factor which can constrain what is possible for an
As we are interested in explaining the formation of non-opportunity beliefs, our focus on
knowledge centers on its role in distinguishing between imagining and believing, rather than the
distinction between the latter two modes of Ramoglou and Tsang’s typology: believing and
knowing. The difference between an opportunity belief and knowing an opportunity is genuine
can only happen retrospectively, after action to actualize the opportunity has been taken
(McMullen, 2015). While this distinction is possible to make after the results of entrepreneurial
action unfold, it is not possible to know whether a yet-to-be actualized opportunity is a non-
opportunity or an opportunity waiting for the right entrepreneur to actualize it. This reflects the
actor-intensive nature of opportunities. Like all entrepreneurship, action is required. Even if a
viable opportunity belief is formed, success is far from guaranteed.
5. Knowledge, the reductive tendency and the formation of opportunity beliefs
Not all individuals construct overly simplistic understandings when faced with complex
problems (Jacobson, 2001). Expertise with a complex problem reduces the extent to which an
individual is susceptible to the reductive tendency as their knowledge of the problem enables
them to comprehend its complexity (Feltovich et al., 2004; Jacobson, 2001). In this vein, novices
learning about a complex concept for the first time prefer simple causality, central control, and
predictability in the phenomena they encounter (Jacobson, 2001). Experts, conversely,
demonstrate decentralized thinking, an understanding of multiple causes, and the use of
stochastic and equilibration processes (Jacobson, 2001).
Research in other domains, including psychology (Jacobson, 2001), entrepreneurship
(Shane, 2000), and education (Hmelo-Silver and Pfeffer, 2004), provides theoretical backing and
empirical evidence that prior knowledge facilitates further and more complex knowledge
acquisition. Such prior stores of knowledge allow individuals to accumulate and integrate new
information (Gimeno Folta, Cooper, and Woo, 1997), to focus on the more salient facets of a
concept (Shepherd and Patzelt, 2018), and to identify new means-ends relationships or
entrepreneurial opportunities (Davidsson and Honig, 2003). These effects are salient for
understanding how prospective entrepreneurs learn about wicked problems as their nature is
revealed through experience with them. For example, experience with wicked problems, and the
knowledge gained through it, may reveal to prospective entrepreneurs their multiple-facets and
non-obvious root causes (Rittel and Webber, 1973).
We suggest three ways in which a prospective entrepreneur can learn about the nature of
wicked problems. First, this knowledge can stem from personally experiencing the problem
(Goss, Jones, Betta and Latham, 2011; Waddock and Steckler, 2016). Goss and colleagues (2011)
found that personal experience enables entrepreneurs to understand multiple facets of a wicked
problem and draw on this knowledge when establishing their own social enterprises. For
example, Prison Fellowship International, an organization that helps inmates transition back into
society after their release, among several other program offerings, was founded by a former
prisoner. Having personally experienced the hardships of prison and carrying those hardships
after release, the founder understood the challenges prisoners face and was motivated to form an
enterprise to help them (Prison Fellowship International, 2019).
Second, prospective entrepreneurs can develop knowledge of wicked problems from
different forms of work experience, such as humanitarian, community, or volunteer work
experience (Corner and Ho, 2010). Although they may not directly experience the problem
through personal suffering, prospective entrepreneurs interact and embed themselves with those
who do, thus providing depth of insight enabling them to comprehend the problem in new and
useful ways (Dorado, 2006). A significant benefit from such experiences is that, when
individuals are embedded in a context, they are more likely to understand how the social and
resource systems interconnect (Baker, 1990). Embeddedness creates increased opportunities for
interaction with community stakeholders (Shaw and Carter, 2007), further creating opportunities
to understand the problem. As an example of gaining this type of experience, Australian Michael
Linke started BEN Namibia, a social enterprise that distributes bicycles to volunteer health
workers and maintains them through repair workshops. Previously, Michael volunteered in the
UK for a charity called Re-cycle, which collects unwanted bikes and ships them to partner
organizations in Africa. He also spent time with a social entrepreneur in Cape Town to better
understand the problem that he was trying to solve through distributing and managing bicycles.
Third, knowledge of wicked problems can come from collaboration wherein in-depth
knowledge of a wicked problem is shared among individuals to learn about the problem (Ferraro
et al., 2015). To tackle wicked problems, multiple stakeholders with different forms of expertise
are often convened. As Montgomery and her colleagues observe, “much of social
entrepreneurship appears, in fact, to be collaborative and collective, drawing on a broad array of
support, cooperation and alliances to build awareness, gain resources and, ultimately, make
change” (Montgomery, Dacin, and Dacin, 2012:376). Along with these benefits, collaborative
social entrepreneurship facilitates the sharing of knowledge and experience among members
(Montgomery et al., 2012; Svendsen and Laberge, 2005). Knowledge acquisition in this manner
has been termed vicarious learning (Huber, 1991) or social learning (Bandura, 1977). Such
knowledge sharing can help prospective entrepreneurs understand the complex nature of wicked
problems developed by drawing on the experiences of others.
With a more advanced understanding of the complexities of wicked problems,
prospective entrepreneurs are less susceptible to the reductive tendency. This reduces the extent
to which they are adversely affected by problem uncertainty as they are more likely to see the
problem, its boundary, and causes for what they are. Knowledge of wicked problems enables
prospective entrepreneurs to more accurately answer the question “What problems are out there
and what is causing them?”
By more comprehensively understanding wicked problems, prospective entrepreneurs are
in a better position not only to determine whether the objective conditions are present to sustain a
venture (making them more likely to avoid Type I errors) but also to better judge potential
opportunities in light of those conditions (making them less likely to commit Type II errors).
They can thus better distinguish which potentially actualizable opportunities should be pursued
and which should not. Knowledge also expands the objective range of opportunities that are
available to the prospective entrepreneur. As the prospective entrepreneur gains more knowledge
about a wicked problem, the realm of opportunities which are possible for them increases
(Ramoglou and Tsang, 2016). While gaining knowledge in and of itself is unlikely to change the
objective conditions that preclude opportunity (i.e. it will not turn a non-opportunity into an
opportunity), it may open the prospective entrepreneur’s eyes to other courses of action that may
in fact be actualizable opportunities. Regarding the window of judgment mentioned in the
preceding section, knowledge enables the prospective entrepreneur to see a distinction between
imagining and believing that decreases the likelihood of forming a belief based on a non-
opportunity. Thus knowledge helps to distinguish between what is simply an imaginative idea
and what is possible, minimizing the likelihood of forming a belief based on a non-opportunity.
PlayPumps can again illustrate the impact of knowledge on the reductive tendency and
subsequently on opportunity beliefs. Despite PlayPumps International exemplifying a failed
social enterprise (e.g., Case, 2010), the PlayPumps technology and approach are still in active
use. In 2018 six new Playpumps were installed (Kim and Perreault-Henry, 2018a). However, the
founder of PlayPumps is no longer leading the operations. With mounting criticism on the
inefficacy of the venture, PlayPump International ceased operations and gifted its inventory to
Water for the People, a nonprofit specializing in water provision. PlayPumps now sits in a
portfolio of potential options for accessing water but are only installed when the conditions are
suitable to support its success. With a rich experience in providing water, the founders of Water
for the People have knowledge to understand when a PlayPump is viable. Interestingly, the
problems encountered by PlayPump International may have contributed to Water for the People’s
more efficacious use of the technology. That is, in addition to knowledge Water for the People
possessed in engaging with the wicked problem of access to clean water, they had the benefit of
learning what not to do from PlayPump International. Thus, positive externalities such as
vicarious learning from a previously failed attempt at solving a wicked problem may emerge.
The impact of knowledge on forming non-opportunity beliefs is illustrated in Figure 2 and
formally stated in our final proposition:
P3: Knowledge of wicked problems gained through experience makes prospective
entrepreneurs less susceptible to the reductive tendency when engaging with wicked
problems. This has implications for the formation of opportunity beliefs, reducing
the likelihood that the entrepreneur forms a belief based on a non-opportunity.
6. Discussion
By their very nature, wicked problems should exude their daunting character and
dissuade individuals from engaging with them. We argue neither that historically intractable
problems must always remain so nor that social entrepreneurs will always misunderstand them.
Instead, we explain how and why the nature of wicked problems can shape the prospective
entrepreneur’s ability to recognize the objective conditions that surround them and the judgments
they form about those conditions when forming opportunity beliefs. We show how this can lead
to non-opportunity beliefs (i.e., Type I errors) where individuals form convictions about
opportunities for which the objective conditions necessary to actualize them are not in place.
While we have focused on wicked problems contextually, our arguments contribute to
entrepreneurship research and practice more broadly.
6.1. Contribution to Theory on Entrepreneurial (Non-)Opportunities
We bring a focus to the nature of problems and the role they play in the formation of
opportunity beliefs. We introduce and conceptualize problem uncertainty as a specific form of
state uncertainty where the exact definition, boundary conditions, and causes of a problem are
unknown or unknowable. This conceptualization lays the foundation for our theorizing on how
prospective entrepreneurs form non-opportunity beliefs.
We draw on and extend Ramoglou and Tsang’s (2016) critical realist perspective that
views opportunities as actor-independent while their pursuit is actor-intensive, with the
individual and environment interacting in ways that are formative to opportunity beliefs.
According to this view, opportunities are based in objective reality, but they are ultimately
propensities that must be actualized by entrepreneurial action (Ramoglou and Tsang, 2016). This
opens the door, as our arguments suggest, for entrepreneurs to act on what may ultimately be not
merely an opportunity doomed to failure, but a non-opportunity (McMullen and Dimov, 2013;
Ramoglou, 2013). We extend the critical realist approach by explicating the mechanisms through
which non-opportunity beliefs are formed. To do this, we introduced the reductive tendency as
the means by which prospective entrepreneurs mentally simplify the nature of wicked problems,
and secondly, we theorized how this simplification influences the formation of opportunity
beliefs. Specifically, we suggest that simplification makes it harder for prospective entrepreneurs
to distinguish between ideas that should be left in the realm of imagination because the objective
conditions to enable its realization are not present, and opportunity beliefs where the objective
conditions to enable its realization are present. By analyzing the nature of wicked problems, we
theorize non-opportunity materially. But, more importantly, we uncover the specific mechanisms
by which non-opportunity beliefs may be formed, and by extension, suggest that taking a
problem-centered approach is necessary in understanding entrepreneurial opportunities more
6.2. Implications for Future Research on Entrepreneurial (Non-)Opportunities
Our focus on problems suggests a need for continued research on the nature and effects of
uncertainty. In McMullen and Shepherd’s (2006) model of opportunity belief formation, the
central question is whether any type of uncertainty state, effect, or response can be
understood and borne to allow for opportunity belief to be formed. However, as we argue above,
in the case of wicked problems, the question is not what prevents opportunity beliefs (Type II
errors) but why non-opportunity beliefs (Type I errors) are formed. By introducing problem
uncertainty a particular form of state uncertainty we bring greater fidelity to the study of
uncertainty type. We suggest that a similar approach can be useful to the broader discussion of
uncertainty across all kinds of entrepreneurship. Going beyond a focus on uncertain outcomes to
questions about uncertain problems may help us rethink fundamental questions about why some
people are able to identify and pursue opportunities to solve some problems while others do not
(Suddaby, Bruton, and Si, 2015).
Our theorizing focuses on how non-opportunity beliefs are formed, rather than the actor-
intensive nature of behavior based on those beliefs. A common criticism of the realist approach
to understanding opportunities is that it does not take time into account (e.g. Berglund and
Korsgaard, 2017). Although it is not possible to know in the case of failure whether there was no
opportunity to begin with or whether the opportunity was left unactualized, the lens of non-
opportunity can provide insights into the judgment of the entrepreneur and how learning about
the complexity of the problem as a basis for opportunity informs their judgment. The decision to
invest in the realization of an opportunity requires the entrepreneur to continually make
judgments about the potential of the opportunity and whether through action and effort it can be
successfully realized (McMullen, 2015). What becomes important is that the entrepreneur learns
about the potential of the opportunity and abandons those startup attempts where the objective
conditions to enable the actualization of the opportunity are not present (Davidsson, 2015).
Bringing this problem focus to the broader study of opportunity could help to answer calls for
further examination of entrepreneurship as process and method (Baker et al., 2003; McMullen
and Dimov, 2013; Sarasvathy, 2003; Sarasvathy and Venkataraman, 2011; Selden and Fletcher,
2015; Venkataraman et al., 2012) where non-opportunity and problem uncertainty can provide
insights into why some startup attempts are abandoned or evolve in unexpected ways.
It is our hope that our approach may also enable productive new theoretical developments
that draw on the vibrant discourse on the nature of opportunity (e.g. Alvarez and Barney, 2007;
2010; Alvarez, Barney, and Anderson, 2012; Alvarez, Barney, McBride, and Wuebker, 2014;
2017; Alvarez, Barney, and Young, 2010; Davidsson, 2015; 2016; Ramoglou and Tsang, 2016;
2018; Ramoglou and Zyglidopoulous, 2015; Ramoglou, 2013; Shane, 2012). In this paper, we
sought not to defend a particular perspective nor to reconcile differing
ontological/epistemological positions, but to draw on the rich, meta-theoretical insights this
ongoing debate has produced to develop new theoretical arguments that address our research
question. We posit that a problem-centric approach to opportunity can facilitate future research
that does the same. The literature dating from when the IO nexus was introduced often mentions
that the possibility of solving customer problems can create value (e.g., Ardichvilli, Cardozo and
Ray 2003; Shane, 2000; Venkataraman, 1997). A focus on solving problems is clearly evident in
social and environmental entrepreneurship research (e.g., Bacq, Hartog, and Hoogendoorn, 2016;
Dees, 2017; Gras and Lumpkin, 2012; Lumpkin, Moss, Gras, Kato, and Amezcua, 2013; Tracey
and Phillips, 2007; York and Venkataraman, 2010; Zahra, Gedajlovic, Neubaum and Shulman
2009), and looking for customer problems to solve as a starting point is key to the way we teach
entrepreneurship (e.g., Neck and Greene, 2011; Neck et al., 2014; Neck et al., 2017). Thus, we
suggest a problem-centric lens could facilitate future theoretical and empirical exploration as a
starting point for understanding the entrepreneurship process that also has the potential to offer
new insights into the relationships among external conditions, entrepreneurs, and opportunities
(Davidsson, 2015; Shane, 2003).
6.3. Contributions to Theory on Entrepreneurial Knowledge
We introduce the reductive tendency, a process through which individuals simplify
complex systems into cognitively manageable representations as they learn about them, to
understand how and why prospective entrepreneurs simplify wicked problems and the
implications of this tendency for the formation of opportunity beliefs. By focusing on the
consequences of simplification in high stakes environments, we shift focus from the benefits of
simplification to overcome doubt and enable action (Shepherd, McMullen and Jennings, 2007;
Wood et al., 2014) to the downside of simplification for increasing the likelihood of a
prospective entrepreneur forming a non-opportunity belief where the subsequent implications of
acting on this belief is the failure of the venture. Relatedly, lack of human capital is frequently
cited as a cause of entrepreneurial failure (Shepherd and Wiklund, 2006) and we offer the
reductive tendency and resulting simplification of the problem as a more refined explanation as
to why lack of human capital, in the form of knowledge of the problem gained through
experience, is a common cause for new firm failure.
By introducing the role of experiential knowledge into our theorizing, we show how it
can reduce the impact of the reductive tendency when forming an understanding of wicked
problems, thereby simultaneously reducing the likelihood of forming non-opportunity beliefs and
increasing the scope of what is possible for that prospective entrepreneur. This enables these
entrepreneurs to develop actualizable opportunities which take into account the wicked nature of
the problem while also having the knowledge to act on them. This extends the literature on
experiential knowledge in entrepreneurship by illustrating a potential mechanism by which
experiential knowledge enables some entrepreneurs and not others to realize actualizable
opportunities. We suggest experience reveals the layered complexity of a problem which
observation from afar cannot. Such experience enables prospective entrepreneurs to make better
judgments about the potential of an opportunity (McMullen, 2015) resulting in them pursuing
opportunities which have a greater likelihood of succeeding and avoiding those that do not. This
extends Corner and Ho’s (2010) discussion of experience corridors in social entrepreneurship by
explicating how and why experience with a problem enables prospective entrepreneurs to
identify opportunities. The social entrepreneurship literature has acknowledge the importance of
experience and depth of understanding of wicked problems (Dorado, 2006) but has yet to
systematically unpack the role of such experience for the formation of opportunity beliefs
(Corner and Ho, 2010).
6.4. Implications for Future Research on Entrepreneurial Knowledge
The reductive tendency also brings to the fore the importance of learning from experience
during entrepreneurship (Cope, 2005; Politis, 2005). Through acting on an opportunity,
entrepreneurs learn about the complexity of the problem they are trying to solve and are
therefore in a better position to make a judgment about the potential of the opportunity and what
is required to actualize the opportunity. In this way, our arguments extend McMullen’s
conceptualization of entrepreneurial judgment as a series of decisions made over time
(McMullen, 2015). His focus was on the developing and bearing out of empathic accuracy such
that judgment about an opportunity can be seen as a process. Our work suggests that, through
knowledge, insights about the definition, boundary conditions, and causes of problems may also
be developed and borne out over time. As we point out, this does not mean that a non-
opportunity can become an opportunity, but it may make other, realizable opportunities easier to
see and may also better enable collective action that may change the objective conditions that
surround the problem. In other words, the entrepreneur may not always have an opportunity to
solve a problem, but he or she does always have an opportunity to learn more about it. In this
sense knowledge shapes and changes the nature of the opportunity as entrepreneurs gain a
greater understanding of what is required to achieve their goals.
6.5. Contribution to Theory on Social Entrepreneurship
Our paper joins a growing stream of research linking wicked problems and grand
challenges to social entrepreneurship (Alvord, Brown, and Letts, 2004; Dorado and Ventresca,
2013; Ferraro et al., 2015; Hervieux and Voltan, 2018; Waddock and Post, 1991). We place
wicked problems and their characteristics at the center of our theorizing to show how they shape
the mechanisms driving (non-)opportunity belief formation.
Prosocial motivation has received a great deal of attention in the social entrepreneurship
literature (e.g., Bacq and Alt, 2018; Conger, 2012; Conger et al., 2018; Mair and Noboa, 2006;
Miller et al., 2012; Wry and York, 2017), while we focus instead on knowledge (and the lack
thereof) in shaping the formation of beliefs. In this way, our contribution is not only additive but
also complimentary to this prior research. We show how the reductive tendency can lead
prospective entrepreneurs to an unsuitably simplified understanding of wicked problems.
Concurrently, prosocial motivation increases the desirability of acting on perceived opportunities
by meeting the prospective entrepreneur’s emotional and moral desire to alleviate suffering
(Miller et al., 2012) and address societal and environmental ills. With such a powerful motivation
to effect change, the reductive tendency’s offering of seemingly simple problems may be
particularly seductive to these would-be social entrepreneurs.
6.6. Implications for Future Research on Social Entrepreneurship
Our focus on wicked problems and deeper integration with established theories of opportunity
(McMullen and Shepherd, 2006; Ramoglou and Tsang, 2016) and knowledge has implications
for future research on social entrepreneurship. Scholars have endorsed the utility of social
entrepreneurship as a distinctive context for extending and challenging existing theory in the
broader entrepreneurship domain (e.g., Battilana and Lee, 2014). We suggest that continued use
of wicked problems and grand challenges as lenses for problematizing the entrepreneurship
process may open new opportunities in this effort. For example, the interrelated nature of wicked
problems (e.g., education and poverty or poverty and hunger) are part of what drives their
complexity and the evaluative nature of how they can be understood. This should prompt us to
look more closely at whether and how these problem relationships may affect and be affected by
entrepreneurial action
Wicked problems are not a prerequisite for the presence of social entrepreneurship;
instead they are boundary condition of our theorizing. Many kinds of opportunities for social
entrepreneurship exist. Social entrepreneurs may, for example, bring ‘unit-level solutions’
(Dorado and Ventresca, 2013) to clear and manageable problems. Zahra and his colleagues’
(2009) ‘social bricoleur’ addresses small-scale local social needs and possesses the knowledge
and resources to sufficiently address the needs. Extending our theorizing more broadly to the
context of social entrepreneurship, different types of social entrepreneurs may be more or less
susceptible to the reductive tendency depending on the nature of the problem they are trying to
solve and the scale at which they are trying to do this. Zahra and his colleagues’ (2009) typology
of social entrepreneurs which takes into account how social entrepreneurs pursue social
opportunities and the reach their solutions have on the broader social system combined with
Smith and Stevens’ (2010) extension of this typology to include the geographic reach of these
entrepreneurs provides a framework for further theorizing on the role of the reductive tendency
in social entrepreneurship more broadly. For example, as social entrepreneurs shift their focus
from addressing social needs within a local community to addressing social needs at a grand
scale, their level of embeddedness within a single community decreases, creating the conditions
for the reductive tendency to manifest.
Perhaps the most obvious implication of our theory is what it reveals about the potential
dark side of social entrepreneurship (Chell, Spence, Perrini, and Harris, 2016; Cho, 2006; Dacin,
2013; Dacin, Dacin, and Tracey, 2011; Dey and Steyaert, 2016; Dorado and Ventresca, 2013,
McMullen and Warnick, 2016). Several of these studies cite a concern consistent with the
Foucault’s work in ethics (Dey and Steyaert, 2016; Dorado and Ventresca, 2013). Namely, any
unilateral attempts to address wicked problems are bound to be ‘clumsy’, even if they do not fail
completely. Under the best of circumstances, opportunities to solve wicked problems are “one-
shot operations” (Rittel and Webber, 1973:163) where, in the event of failure, pursuing these
opportunities could cause more harm than good. This creates a high stakes environment where
understanding why attempts to address wicked problems can fail has high practical relevance.
The reductive tendency can help explain why many attempts to solve wicked problems fall short
(Dorado and Ventresca, 2013). By misconstruing the complexity of the wicked problem,
prospective entrepreneurs risk implementing solutions that do not solve them, and perhaps do
even more harm than good (Dorado and Ventresca, 2013).
6.7. Implications for Practice
Our theory also offers several implications for prospective entrepreneurs wishing to
tackle wicked problems. Most notably, we illuminate the susceptibility of prospective
entrepreneurs to the reductive tendency when aiming to tackle wicked problems where the
consequence is overly simplistic solutions that do not help alleviate the wicked problem. We
further suggest that this may be avoided through in-depth understanding of the problem and
provide actionable methods of gaining such understanding. The apocryphal adage often
attributed to Einstein, “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes
defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution” is worth considering.
Prospective entrepreneurs would do well to gain experience and develop expertise about wicked
problems before trying to solve them. We recommend that when feeling compelled by
compassion to help those suffering in this world, they would find real and meaningful
opportunities to expose themselves to the wicked problem they wish to address so they can
acquire vital experience and avoid the seductive call of the reductive tendency. One way they can
do this is by working with experts and learning about the problem through different forms of
work experience.
We would also urge prospective entrepreneurs to seriously consider potentially negative
consequences if they do pursue what could be a non-opportunity. If, as we suggest, the reductive
tendency tends to lead them to wrongly simplify their understanding of the causes and outcomes
of addressing wicked problems, we can expect poor and perhaps even grave consequences for
the people they try to help. The most obvious way this could manifest itself would be in
unintended consequences. Because of their interrelated nature, causal ambiguity, and the
impossibility of understanding their true nature a priori, attempts to solve wicked problems can
trigger new chains of persistent social ills. Also, we must take seriously the issue of problem
normativity; the inextricably entwined nature of human values and norms with problem
formation and resolution (Farrell and Hooker, 2013). Wicked problems have variable ontologies
(Callon, 1998; Ferraro et al., 2015), shape and are shaped by the interpretation of multiple
stakeholders (Dentoni et al., 2016; Reinecke and Ansari, 2016), and thus have neither a true or
false solution nor an ultimate means for testing solutions (Rittel and Webber, 1973). We suggest
prospective entrepreneurs must grapple with these difficulties if they hope to minimize the
potential downside of tackling wicked problems. This is not to say that we expect entrepreneurs
to be infallible. Indeed, it may be that failed attempts to solve wicked problems allow others (or
those entrepreneurs themselves) to learn and reduce the effects of the reductive tendency in the
future. Instead, we suggest that entrepreneurs seeking to address social ills take the same
approach as physicians who, even when choosing to administer high-risk treatments, still strive
to first do no harm.
The concept of non-opportunity also has pedagogical implications as it provides a
language and process through which the feasibility of students’ ideas can be considered.
Evaluating ideas through a non-opportunity lens would emphasize the necessity of favorable
external conditions in new venture formation (Mullins, 2003), and openness to the absence of
these conditions. We often encourage students to get into the field and learn about these external
conditions by becoming familiar with economic and consumer trends, strategic positions of other
players in their industry, and the like. We also ask them to assess market potential through
consumer surveys or offering pre-orders of a product. While these steps are common in the
entrepreneurship classroom, the emphasis is often on finding reasons why something is an
opportunity as opposed to why it may not be (Mullins, 2003). Employing non-opportunity
language would flip the emphasis and aid in building a more holistic evaluation of ideas.
Moreover, robustly discussing and teaching the objective conditions needed to support the
realization of opportunities complements existing dominant approaches to teaching
entrepreneurship, such as effectuation (Sarasvathy, 2001) and the Lean Startup method (Ries,
2011) which have a predominately inward entrepreneur focus.
6.8. Limitations and Opportunities for Future Research
As with any study, ours has limitations. We intentionally limit our focus to theoretical
development and to opportunity beliefs in the setting of wicked problems. Of course, the interest
of social entrepreneurship scholars goes well beyond the formation of opportunity beliefs and
wicked problems. Ultimately, we wish to answer the same question as many in society more
broadly. That is, whether and how entrepreneurship can help address wicked social and
environmental problems (Lumpkin et al., 2013). In addition to what we outline in our discussion,
future research could consider how wicked problems may continue to affect entrepreneurs as
they take action on their opportunity and continue their entrepreneurial journey. For example, it
would be valuable to understand the potential for spillover effects of the experience and learning
the entrepreneur may gain by pursuing an opportunity, or non-opportunity, to solve wicked
problems. This may tell us more about social entrepreneurship as a non-zero-sum game that must
be played over multiple attempts and learning from each.
Our theory is also limited by our intentional focus on the reductive tendency. We found
this perspective to be particularly useful in explaining why and how individuals come to believe
they have an opportunity to solve a wicked problem. However, we believe addressing this
question from other perspectives, especially within the domain of social psychology, may shed
more light on the mechanisms we describe here. In particular, sociological theories of identity
(Stryker, 1980; Burke, 1980) and symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1962) could be especially
enlightening, as they recognize that the beliefs, understandings, and actions of individuals occur
and relate within their social and institutional context.
Our theory would further benefit from the critique of scholars rooted in different
philosophical paradigms. In particular, theories focused more on radical change and structural
power dynamics (Burrell and Morgan, 1979) could provide important new perspectives to refine
the ideas we offer here. For example, feminist theory has been useful in illuminating important
ways in which individual and structural beliefs about gender shape the entrepreneurial
experience (see Hughes, Jennings, Brush, Carter, and Welter, 2012).
Finally, we address the concept of wicked problems only in the abstract. While this is
necessary to build generalizable theory, it also prevents us from uncovering deeper insight that
may be found through a more contextualized dive focused on a particular wicked problem, and
the lives of the people who suffer from it. Future research should consider wicked problems and
opportunities from multiple cultural perspectives and particularly those perspectives specific to
the affected populations.
7. Conclusion
Solving social problems is possible. Many entrepreneurs are subject-matter experts who
understand, respect, and compensate for the complexity of the social problems they battle.
However, there also is no shortage of anecdotes about entrepreneurs who charged into a wicked
problem, only to find that they did not grasp the underlying complexity, often to disastrous
effects (e.g., PlayPumps International, 2016). Despite the daunting task of addressing these
complex problems, many entrepreneurs continue to create new ventures to engage with them
(Kickul and Lyons, 2016). This paper offers one explanation to account for this phenomenon. For
those pursuing entrepreneurial solutions to wicked problems, we recommend that they, to
paraphrase M. Scott Peck (1998:14),
Abandon the urge to simplify everything, to look for formulas and easy answers, and to begin to
think multidimensionally, to glory in the mystery and paradoxes of [wicked problems], not to be
dismayed by the multitude of causes and consequences that are inherent in each experience -- to
appreciate the fact that [a wicked problem] is complex.
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8. Tables and Figures
Table 1
The 11 Dimensions of Reductive Tendency
Dimension Summary Ex. of WP Complexity Ex. Study*
Simplification of process dimensions
1. Discrete vs. continuous A continuous process is more
complex than one that can be
broken up into clear, discrete
The fluid and iterative nature of developing and
passing new laws makes legal activism difficult
and unpredictable.
Fiore et al. (2008)
2. Separable vs. interactive Independent processes are easier
to understand than those that are
more interrelated.
By providing free goods or services to the
impoverished, local industry may be crowded out,
creating more poverty in the long-term.
Blitz (2006)
3. Sequential vs. simultaneous Simultaneous processes are more
difficult to grasp than those that
unfold in a step-by-step order.
Ex-convicts transitioning back into society often
have diverse, yet immediate and concurrent needs
from the moment they are released, such as
housing, employment and psychological support.
Mitchell et al. (1999)
4. Linear vs. nonlinear A clearly lineated set of
relationships between processes
is easier to understand than ones
with delineated, overlapping
While setting up a water well may be a linear
process, maintaining them in perpetuity involves
intermittent, difficult to predict, attention and
Rogers (2000)
Examples of simplification of process in SE and related studies – Hall et al. (2012); Lane et al. (2009)
Perspective restriction dimensions
5. Single vs. multiple
Concepts that can be presented
through a single exemplar are
easier to understand than those
necessitating multiple depictions.
The homeless are a heterogeneous population with
numerous and varying needs. Helping one is often
different from helping another for SEs.
Burstein & Adelson
6. Mechanism vs. organicism Processes with one or few causal
agents are less complex than
those with many.
Poverty is often not the result of a lack of local
high paying jobs. Instead, factors such as a lack of
skillsets, financial institutions, and health
deficiencies, hamper wealth accumulation.
Hoffman et al. (2014)
7. Surface vs. deep The ability to grasp a concept
through easily observable content
makes it simpler than one that
necessitates the uncovering of
covert or abstract elements.
Mental health issues are dicult to
diagnose simply by the observable
actions of patients. Instead, they
possess deep-seated root causes that
must be uncovered through time, eort,
Valley et al. (2018)
and skill.
Examples of perspective restriction in SE and related studies – Cook et al. (2003); Roy et al. (2014)
Standardized representation of phenomena dimensions
8. Static vs. dynamic The more a concept changes over
time, the more complex.
The sheer volume of medical research
and pace of advances makes it
cumbersome for even health
professionals to stay abreast.
Meyers et al. (1990)
9. Homogeneous vs.
Similar facets of a process better
facilitates understanding of the
Efficient and effective foreign aid faces a plethora
of dissimilar challenges, such as local corruption,
poor infrastructure, misidentified needs, and donor
Wiser & Carey (1983)
10. Universal vs. conditional Concepts that hold and apply
under varying circumstances are
less complex than ones that vary
with circumstances.
Entrepreneurs in the base of the economic pyramid
need idiosyncratic support based on varying levels
of education, experience, and financial needs.
Tobin (2013)
11. Regular vs. irregular A typical, repeatable concept is
less complex than one that is
atypical, and/or inconsistent.
The irregularity and unique manifestations of
many crimes around the globe makes prevention a
challenging task.
Spiro et al. (2012)
Examples of standardized representation of phenomena in SE and related studies Rutherford (2000); Ika and Donnelly
*This is a domain-diverse collection of studies that, whether or not they employ the specific dimension terminology, employ the dimension itself.
... Increasingly, communities (e.g., Hertel et al., 2019), governments (e.g., Klein et al., 2010), nonprofits (e.g., Gras & Mendoza-Abarca, 2014), and social innovators (e.g., Nicholls, 2010) are turning to entrepreneurship to solve complex issues, such as poverty, social injustice, and access to education and healthcare. Inherently, stakeholders possess differing values (Harrison & Wicks, 2013), which shape and influence how each perceives and relates to grand challenges (Gras et al., 2020). When stakeholders convene to enact positive social change (PSC) through entrepreneurship, they must reconcile and integrate their different values to create contextual solutions and strategies. ...
... To facilitate heightened awareness, regimes of support and enterprises may choose to embed themselves within communities to increase opportunities for interaction (Shaw & Carter, 2007). Not only does embeddedness increase awareness of community problems (Gras et al., 2020), but it also improves stakeholders' understanding of how potential solutions may be perceived by the community (Dorado, 2006). Although community embeddedness may be considered a key characteristic of social entrepreneurship (Mair & Marti, 2006), its benefits extend far beyond the boundaries of social enterprises. ...
... Under these conditions, stakeholders may encounter problem uncertainty "where the exact definition, boundary conditions, and causes of a problem are unknown or unknowable" (Gras et al., 2020, p. 1). Although stakeholder experience and collaboration may improve the general awareness of societal problems through opportunity recognition (Gras et al., 2020), they do not explain how solutions are identified when not previously available. Thus, the crux of CWC becomes "How do stakeholders move beyond awareness to acquire new knowledge and solutions?" ...
Entrepreneurship is an innovative solution for many businesses, communities, governments, nonprofits, and social innovators to address societal issues, such as poverty and social injustice. Civic wealth creation (CWC) is one type of entrepreneurial change process that engages diverse stakeholders to enact positive social change (PSC). However, resistance to change and low stakeholder engagement often impede efforts to achieve desired outcomes. Because stakeholder theory holds that stakeholders with joint interests create new value when they interact, we propose a stakeholder engagement framework that uses the awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, and reinforcement (ADKAR) change methodology to enhance CWC stakeholders’ propensity to participate in the entrepreneurial change processes that create PSC.
... v On a more positive note, Kimjeon and Davidsson (2021) report markedly increasing scholarly interest in the most recent period of their review, although the absolute number of manuscripts remains modest. vi This being said, some works in the "opportunity stream" do discuss "non-opportunities" (e.g., Gras et al., 2020;Ramoglou & Tsang, 2016). vii This is arguably more appropriate than concluding that "the external enabler theory should equally explain external changes as a disabler" (Klyver & Nielsen, 2021). ...
"External enabler" (EE) denotes nontrivial changes to the business environment-such as new technology, regulatory change, demographic and sociocultural trends, macroeconomic swings, and changes to the natural environment-that enable entrepreneurial pursuits. The EE framework was developed to increase knowledge accumulation in entrepreneurship and strategy research regarding the influence of environmental factors on entrepreneurial endeavors. The framework provides detailed structure and carefully defined terminology to describe, analyze, and explain the influence of changes in the business environment on entrepreneurial pursuits. EE characteristics specify the environmental changes' range of impact in terms of spatial, sectoral, sociocultural, and temporal scope as well as the degree of suddenness and predictability of their onset. EE mechanisms specify the types of benefits individual ventures may derive from EEs. Among others, these include cost saving, resource provision, making possible new or improved products/services, and demand expansion. EE roles situate these (anticipated) mechanisms in entrepreneurial processes as triggering and/or shaping and/or outcome-enhancing. EE's influence is conceived of as mediated by entrepreneurial agency that-in addition to agent characteristics-is contingent on the opacity (difficulty to identify) and agency-intensity (difficulty to exploit) of EE mechanisms, with the ensuing enablement being variously fortuitous or resulting from strategic deliberation.
... Moral markets tend to be local rather than traded industries (e.g., service firms seeking to train and employ returning citizens in a particular city or community; Delgado et al. 2015). Even efforts to address social and environmental issues with a global scope are shaped by the local context in which they are developed and how firms translate local cultural factors as they scale (Gras et al. 2020). For these reasons, the question of survival in moral markets requires theoretical explanations beyond those offered for traditional emerging markets. ...
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A growing body of scholarship studies the emergence of moral markets—sectors offering market-based solutions to social and environmental issues. To date, researchers have largely focused on the drivers of firm entry into these values-laden sectors. However, we know comparatively little about postentry dynamics or the determinants of firm survival in moral markets. This study examines how regional institutional logics—spatially bound, socially constructed meaning systems that legitimize specific practices and goals within a community—shape firm survival in emerging moral markets. Using a unique panel of firms entering the first eight years of the U.S. green building supply industry, we find that (1) a regional market logic amplifies the impacts of market forces by increasing the positive impact of market adoption and the negative impact of localized competition on firm survival, (2) a regional proenvironmental logic dampens the impacts of adoption and competition on firm survival, and (3) institutional complexity—the co-occurrence of both market and proenvironmental logics in a region—negates the traditional advantages of de alio (diversifying incumbent) firms, creating an opportunity for de novo (entrepreneurial entrant) firms to compete more effectively. Our study integrates research on industry emergence, institutional logics, and firm survival to address important gaps in our knowledge regarding the evolution and growth of environmental entrepreneurship in moral markets.
... But this does not mean that there are opportunities everywhere, always, and for anyone. The category of "non-opportunity" is as important (Gras et al., 2020;Ramoglou & Tsang, 2016). To downplay the determining role of agentindependent conditions external to the entrepreneur is to (inadvertently) legitimate dangerous narratives and create an unforgiving space for failed entrepreneurs and the economically disadvantaged population. ...
There are two battles at the heart of the "opportunity wars": 1) Are opportunities discovered or created, and 2) Should we perhaps abandon the opportunity concept altogether? We argue that the first question is a pseudo-question, made possible by the loose use of "opportunity" in the discovery/creation debate during the last two decades. However, we refrain from going so far as to conclude that the opportunity concept should be abandoned altogether, since we observe that opportunity scholarship prior to the 2000s made a more meaningful use of the concept. It alluded to the environmental conditions necessary for the actualization of desirable futures and hardly ever questioned the agent-independence of such conditions. Accordingly, we maintain that the opportunity concept should simply exit the blind alley created by the "discovery/creation" distraction and help reorient attention toward the agent-independent sources of opportunity and threat - beyond unrealistically optimistic views of entrepreneurship as an act of "opportunity discovery" and/or "opportunity creation".
... In spite of the traction that the actualization perspective is gaining (e.g. Bao et al., 2020;Berends et al., 2021;Davidsson et al., 2020;Dempster, 2020;Gras et al., 2020;Hu et al., 2020;Ramoglou & McMullen, 2021), we maintain that it has yet to reach its full theoretical potential as an outward-looking perspective of entrepreneurship. From the standpoint of stakeholder theory, actualization fails to acknowledge the entirety of the stakeholders necessary for the actualization of desirable outcomes and maintains a rather myopic focus on market stakeholders. ...
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How can stakeholder theory contribute to opportunity theory? We suggest that stakeholder theory affords appropriate theoretical lenses for grounding the opportunity-actualization perspective more firmly within the real-world constraints of business venturing. Actualization departs from a strong focus on entrepreneurial agency to conceptualize how pre-existing environmental conditions determine what entrepreneurial action can achieve. We explain that stakeholder theory can strengthen the outward-looking orientation of actualization by 1) bringing the entirety of stakeholders center-stage – beyond a narrow focus on market stakeholders, and 2) stressing the importance of non-economic considerations for the actualization of economic opportunities. Our theorization culminates in the concept of “strategic opportunity thinking” (SOT). We conceptualize SOT as a way of protecting prospective entrepreneurs from the blind-to-stakeholders mindset that either sleepwalks them into the territory of non-opportunity or prevents them from the actualization of real yet difficult-to-actualize opportunities in the absence of stakeholder-centric thinking.
... As they manifested, circumstances showed that revenues did not exceed costs to achieve the profit needed to meet the criteria involved in the Shane and Venkataraman definition. Scholars (e.g., Gras et al. 2020;Kirzner 1999;Ramaglou and Tsang 2016) would therefore likely suggest that the KeepOut case was not based on an opportunity at all. This same assessment likely holds for the case of Buyonline. ...
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We highlight the important role that time plays in conceptualizations of opportunity in entrepreneurship research. Through two longitudinal case studies, we introduce a more dynamic understanding of opportunities than portrayed by current theorizing, which tends to emphasize “opportunity discovery.” By adopting a dynamic temporal perspective, we integrate Kirzner’s and Mises’s approaches to entrepreneurial action to generate novel insights about how entrepreneurs view opportunities as initial opportunity beliefs, how these beliefs change over time, and how these changes help inform scholarly research of opportunities. We argue that taking the role of time into consideration opens up new questions related to opportunity and the dynamics of its development.
... We can clearly grasp the realities of time and uncertainty (McMullen & Shepherd, 2006;). Yet, the problem is that sophisticated forms of ordinary understanding are inadvertently occluded when we see the world through distorting linguistic mirrors that oversimplify entrepreneurship as a fairly uncomplicated process of "opportunity discovery" (Gras et al., 2020). In this vein, Foss and Klein argue that we are trapped in a "theoretical Gestalt" that entangles "opportunity discovery" with "evaluation" and "exploitation". ...
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It is often assumed that opportunities can be known ex ante in spite of the fact that the future is simultaneously acknowledged to be unknowable. This paper endeavors to resolve this epistemological paradox in a manner that facilitates a more meaningful treatment of the knowledge problems of entrepreneurship. To this end, we draw from linguistic philosophy and undertake three interrelated analytical steps at the conceptual foundations of entrepreneurship theory. First, we clarify subtle logical aspects underlying the meaningful use of the word “uncertainty” qua unknowability. When properly used, uncertainty reflects the epistemological assessment that enterprising actors may only believe – not know – that new ventures can succeed. When incorrectly used, uncertainty is misrepresented as an obstacle that can be overcome by some and not others. Second, we explain how prevalent linguistic practices (“opportunity discovery”, “opportunity recognition”) lie at the root of epistemological tensions in opportunity theory. They act as a distorting mirror that trivializes the unknowability of the future and nourishes impressions of mental agencies allowing entrepreneurs to know the unknowable. Third, we urge a more nuanced understanding of the knowledge problems of entrepreneurship. On the one hand, we submit that opportunities are ineliminably unknowable. On the other hand, however, we argue that there exist knowable Opportunity-Ingredients (OIs) whose knowability varies across contexts. These analytical developments further contribute to the ongoing “opportunity wars”, strengthen the epistemological foundations of opportunity-actualization, improve construct clarity, and reveal new possibilities for research.
This paper discusses entrepreneurial intention as originating from two discrete, inter-regulating psychological states, motivation and volition, in pursuits of distant venturing goals. The dependencies and tendencies of these two states are represented by a cross-lagged panel model with random intercepts (RI-CLPM) that can capture motivation-volition spillover as well as longitudinal carry-over effects in a timespan of four entrepreneurial action episodes. The RI-CLPM comprises three model components, namely the measurement of factorial structures, auto-correlated panel dynamics, and a causal pathway associated with distant entrepreneurial goals. In addition, the RI-CLPM is an integrated panel model that can estimate all relational effects simultaneously. One hundred and sixty-three entrepreneurial fledglings provided the data over eight months in 2020. The analytic findings offer insight into entrepreneurs’ consciousness over controlling the motivation-volition spillover attributed to perseverance, expediency, and sensitivity to market demands in a long-term venturing journey.
Extending earlier critiques, I suggest that continued use of Shanian discovery and Alvarez-Barnean creation views and their respective standpoints on “opportunities” would constrain future entrepreneurship research. Instead, I suggest venture creation be recognized as the field’s true core, with or without the opportunity concept. Within a big tent of venture creation research, researchers with different knowledge interests and varying convictions regarding the roles of agency and structure in venture creation can partake in our most valuable contribution to the broader domain of economic and organizational studies: insights into the journey from non-existence to existence of new ventures.
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To address challenges constraining prior research on evaluation of entrepreneurial projects, we develop the concept of Venture Idea Assessment (VIA) and validate an instrument to capture it. VIA concerns the assessment of Venture Ideas (VI) unbundled from assessment of any agents with whom they may be associated. The assessment can be performed by anybody at any stage of the venture development process, not just by potential founders at its outset. We develop and validate a parsimonious VIA measure across six empirical studies using a broad set of assessors and VIs using interviews, experiments and surveys following real-world start-up processes and decisions. In a research agenda we outline how the VIA platform—the concept and its operationalization—can be employed in novel research across various streams of entrepreneurship research.
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The importance of values to the social entrepreneur is widely acknowledged in the social entrepreneurship literature. However, in-depth discussion of values and how they motivate the social entrepreneur is extremely rare. Most studies of entrepreneurial smotivation focus solely on economic incentives and psychological constructs such as self-efficacy and the need for personal achievement. In this chapter, I examine the question of how an entrepreneur’s values influence the kind of venture she (or he) will create. I draw on values theories from social psychology to explain the role of values as drivers of entrepreneurial action with the purpose of creating social or environmental benefits over and above economic benefits. I theorize that entrepreneurs will place varying levels of priority on values focused on either self-enhancement or self-transcendence and that these prioritizations will strongly influence the importance they place on creating economic or social benefits through their ventures. I provide a framework for understanding how values motivate social entrepreneurs to create non-economic value. This chapter advances the study of entrepreneurship by reintroducing values as an important topic for research. I show how values may provide a way to determine who will become a social entrepreneur and who will not. Also I demonstrate that, by understanding the unique value priorities and blended social/economic goals of social entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurship research may broaden our understanding of entrepreneurship and the role of values in entrepreneurship more broadly. Finally, I explore the practical implications of understanding values for the social entrepreneur. Considering her own value priorities and those of her firm’s stakeholders is critical to the success of the social entrepreneur and her venture.
Empathy is a key trait distinguishing social entrepreneurs from traditional entrepreneurs, and an important antecedent of social entrepreneurial (SE) intentions. Yet, little research explains the mechanisms through which empathy motivates SE intentions. We argue that studying the link between the prosocial trait of empathy and the prosocial outcome of SE intentions requires a prosocial lens that traditional entrepreneurial intent theories cannot offer. Building on prosocial motives research, we propose that empathy explains SE intentions through two complementary mechanisms: self-efficacy (an agentic mechanism), and social worth (a communal mechanism). We find support for our hypotheses in a study of 281 university students.
We extend current knowledge on prosocial organizing by explaining how membership in organizational categories lead entrepreneurs to reevaluate their firms' activities and opportunities. Through a qualitative study of 46 firms that pursued B Corp certification, we developed an identity control model of prosocial opportunity. Our findings suggest that joining a prosocial category catalyzes identity-driven reflexivity, which can alter the firm's engagement in prosocial activity. This identity-driven process occurs in tandem with evaluations of opportunity viability and attractiveness, the potential for intra-organizational conflict, and the relative power and position that category legitimacy affords the firm. Our findings contribute to literature streams on prosocial organizing, identity, and categories.
Cognitive flexibility is defined as the ability to assimilate previously learned information and concepts to generate novel solutions to new problems. This skill is crucial for success within ill-structured domains such as biology, physiology, and medicine, where many concepts are simultaneously required for understanding a complex problem, yet the problem consists of patterns or combinations of concepts that are not consistently used or needed across all examples. To succeed within ill-structured domains, a student must possess a certain level of cognitive flexibility: rigid thought processes and prepackaged informational retrieval schemes relying on rote memorization will not suffice. In this study, we assessed the cognitive flexibility of undergraduate physiology students using a validated instrument entitled Student's Approaches to Learning (SAL). The SAL evaluates how deeply and in what way information is processed, as well as the investment of time and mental energy that a student is willing to expend by measuring constructs such as elaboration and memorization. Our results indicate that students who rely primarily on memorization when learning new information have a smaller knowledge base about physiological concepts, as measured by a prior knowledge assessment and unit exams. However, students who rely primarily on elaboration when learning new information have a more well-developed knowledge base about physiological concepts, which is displayed by higher scores on a prior knowledge assessment and increased performance on unit exams. Thus students with increased elaboration skills possibly possess a higher level of cognitive flexibility and are more likely to succeed within ill-structured domains.
Presents an integrative theoretical framework to explain and to predict psychological changes achieved by different modes of treatment. This theory states that psychological procedures, whatever their form, alter the level and strength of self-efficacy. It is hypothesized that expectations of personal efficacy determine whether coping behavior will be initiated, how much effort will be expended, and how long it will be sustained in the face of obstacles and aversive experiences. Persistence in activities that are subjectively threatening but in fact relatively safe produces, through experiences of mastery, further enhancement of self-efficacy and corresponding reductions in defensive behavior. In the proposed model, expectations of personal efficacy are derived from 4 principal sources of information: performance accomplishments, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and physiological states. Factors influencing the cognitive processing of efficacy information arise from enactive, vicarious, exhortative, and emotive sources. The differential power of diverse therapeutic procedures is analyzed in terms of the postulated cognitive mechanism of operation. Findings are reported from microanalyses of enactive, vicarious, and emotive modes of treatment that support the hypothesized relationship between perceived self-efficacy and behavioral changes. (21/2 p ref)
Concerns are growing over the ability of the modern food system to simultaneously achieve food security and environmental sustainability in the face of global change. Yet, the dominant tendency within university settings to conceptualize and address diverse food system challenges as separate, disconnected issues is a key barrier to food system transformation. To address this fragmented approach, educators in North American institutes of higher education have begun new degree programs, specializations and certificates related to food systems. These programs, which we term sustainable food system education (SFSE) programs, have a common goal: to support post-secondary students across a range of disciplines in developing the knowledge, skills and dispositions to effectively address complex challenges in the food system. Graduates of these programs will be able to engage in collective action towards transforming the food system. As educators participating in flagship SFSE programs, we identify common pedagogical themes evident in SFSE programs, including our own. We then propose a signature pedagogy (SP) for sustainable food systems education. Signature pedagogies are conceptual models that identify the primary elements by which professional education in a specific field is designed, structured and implemented. On the basis of our analysis of SFSE programs, we identified systems thinking, multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinarity, use of experiential learning approaches and participation in collective action projects as central themes within a SFSE SP. By making these themes and their function explicit within a pedagogical framework, we seek to spur critical and creative thought regarding challenges of professional education in the field of sustainable food systems. Scholars and practitioners are encouraged to review, critique and implement our framework to advance the dialogue on SFSE theory and practice.