To develop effective protected area policies, scholars and practitioners must better understand the mechanisms through which protected areas affect social and environmental outcomes. With strong evidence about mechanisms, the key elements of success can be strengthened, and the key elements of failure can be eliminated or repaired. Unfortunately, empirical evidence about these mechanisms is limited, and little guidance for quantifying them exists. This essay assesses what mechanisms have been hypothesized, what empirical evidence exists for their relative contributions and what advances have been made in the past decade for estimating mechanism causal effects from non-experimental data. The essay concludes with a proposed agenda for building an evidence base about protected area mechanisms.