On a planet experiencing global environmental change, the governance of natural resources depends on sustained collective action by diverse populations. Engaging in such collective action can only build upon the foundation of human cognition in social–ecological settings. To help understand this foundation, we assess the effect of cognitive abilities on the management of a common pool resource. We present evidence that two functionally distinct cognitive abilities, general and social intelligence, improve the ability of groups to manage a common pool resource. Groups high in both forms of intelligence engage in more effective collective action that is also more consistent, despite social or ecological change. This result provides a foundation for integrating the effects of cognitive abilities with other dimensions of cognitive diversity to explain when groups will and will not sustainably govern natural resources.