The Nobel prize-winning research of Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) was a political scientist who studied groups that managed natural resources such as forests, pastures, fisheries, and irrigation systems. These are called commons because they can be drawn upon by a number of people. They are vulnerable to overuse, as noted by the ecologist Garrett Hardin in his famous 1968 article in Science magazine titled “The Tragedy of the Commons”.

Conventional economic wisdom held that the tragedy of the commons would always occur unless prevented by top-down regulations or privatizing the resource (which is only sometimes possible). Ostrom’s achievement was to compile a worldwide database of common-pool resource groups and to show that some of them were capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons on their own—but only if they possess certain “core design principles” listed in table 1. This insight was so new against the background of conventional economic wisdom that it merited the profession’s highest honor.

Prosocial leader David Sloan Wilson was fortunate to work with Ostrom and her postdoctoral associate, Michael Cox (currently a professor of Environmental Science at Dartmouth College) for three years prior to her death in 2012. The main result of this collaboration was to show that the core design principles could be generalized to all groups whose members must cooperate to accomplish shared goals.

In addition to core design principles that are needed for cooperation in all its forms, there are other design principles that are needed by some groups but not others to accomplish their particular goals. These are called auxiliary design principles and they are as important as the core design principles for the groups that need them.

While the core design principles are needed by virtually all groups, the particular way they are implemented can be highly contextual.  Group members are the best judge of how to implement the design principles, which is why the authority to self-govern (core design principle #7) is so important.


Elinor Ostrom working in the field with a common-pool resource group managing an irrigation system.

Evolutionary Science

Prosocial began with David Sloan Wilson bringing together two very powerful ideas. The first is the idea of multilevel selection. In a nutshell, "Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups." What the heck does this mean?

It's a pointer to the continual tension between acting out of the interests of what is best for me, and acting out of the interests of what is best for my group. If you stop and pay attention to your daily life you will see very quickly that many, many times a day we face a choice between doing what's best for us, and doing what's best for the groups to which we belong. "Should I put in that extra bit of effort at work when I would much prefer to be taking some leisure time?", "Should I purchase that new shiny toy I want or save the money for my family?" Or even, "should I stop trying to convince this person that I am right, and start to listen to them?"

Of course, human beings are such a wonderfully social species that our own needs and interests often include catering for the needs and interests of others. We all value caring for loved ones and cooperating with people to achieve what matters to us. It is the human condition to care very much about belonging in groups, but also to care very much about our own individual needs and interests. This is, in a very real sense, the fundamental human dilemma.

Multilevel-selection theory systematizes that understanding by pointing out that variation, selection and retention can occur at any level within a dynamic system. So under some conditions, selfishness can be selected for, while under other conditions, more cooperative behaviours are selected. Prosocial is designed to increase the strength of the selection forces for cooperative behaviours, and decrease the selection forces for more self-interested behaviours.

In effect, the principles of Prosocial create the conditions for a group to start behaving more like a single organism, than a collection of individuals. This shift from separate organisms to organisms that are so cooperative that they appear to behave like a single organism has happened multiple times in evolutionary history. Think of, for example, cells cooperating to form organisms. Or insects cooperating to form huge colonies that appear to act in almost perfect synchrony. When individual cells replicate themselves at the expense of the whole body we call it cancer. The smooth functioning of our bodies relies upon mechanisms to suppress the selfishness of individual cells. We can think of humans as being similar but different to these examples.

When some people learn about multilevel selection theory, their first response is "but I don't want to be a termite! My individual identity is precious to me”. Talk of suppression of self-interested behavior can sound to some a little bit like a totalitarian state. But we need to be careful about going to extremes. Arguably the cult of individualism in the West has elevated individual choice and utility to such a degree that it is undermining our connections to others. What we need is a way of encouraging cooperation while still respecting the wholeness of individuals. Prosocial is designed to achieve that balance by creating the social conditions that encourage shared effort towards a common goal and discourage excessively disruptive behaviour. Think of it as more like birds flying in formation. They can choose to fly alone or even to fly in a different direction, but it is much more satisfying to fly together. And to rotate who goes in front!

Contextual Behavioral Science (CBS)

There is a third big idea underpinning Prosocial and that is the science of behaviour change known as Contextual Behavioural Science. In a nutshell, Contextual Behavioural Science is an evolutionary theory of behaviour, language and thinking. Whether we cooperate or act out of self interest in any given situation is a function of a wide variety of influences like our biological and cultural heritage. But the key leverage point for changing behaviour in groups is changing the way we relate to our own experiences and to those of others in the group. Contextual Behavioural Science gives us practical tools to help people clarify what really matters to them individually, and to integrate those individual needs and interests with those of the group as a whole. It helps us think more clearly about when our assumptions and beliefs are getting in the way of positive relationships. And it helps us articulate positive ways forward so that people can be authentically themselves while also achieving great things together.

We are lucky to have a major figure of contemporary CBS, Steven C. Hayes, as a member of Prosocial’s development team. Steve founded a version of behavioral/cognitive/mindfulness based therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced as one word), which has become popular around the world and validated by many scientific studies. Steve also helped to found the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) which numbers over 8000 members worldwide and has played a major role in the adoption of Prosocial. Paul Atkins, another member of Prosocial’s developmental team, is an ACBS fellow and many (although by no means all) Prosocial facilitators are ACBS members who learned about Prosocial through ACBS.

It is important to stress that the T in ACT can stand for either “Therapy” or “Training”. The word “therapy” is typically used when a person is highly stressed and in need of assistance to accomplish positive change. The word “training” is used for people at all skill levels. Even the most elite athletes work with trainers. No matter how well you and the groups in your life are currently functioning, the principles of ACT can result in improvements.  

We look forward to helping you become familiar with the Prosocial process, joining our Prosocial community and transforming your practice to help us make groups that matter more fulfilling and effective.

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