Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for her work in understanding the things people did to protect their common pooled resources: their forests, pastures, fisheries, and irrigation systems. For hundreds if not thousands of years, some groups have succeeded and prospered in doing so; some have failed. They did not succeed because they filed a successful development grant with the World Bank – they succeeded because worked together to balance group interests while managing the human tendency toward selfishness.

When you recognize that Ostrom’s design principles are managing processes of variation and selection at the group and the individual levels, there is nothing that prevents applying these principles to a much wider array of human situations. In the ProSocial project we had to learn how to do so effectively.

The first design principle calls for clearly defined boundaries and purposes, but how does that apply to purposes that are far more abstract than the best use of a common-pool resource? Suppose you are working together to create a less sexist society – do the same principles apply? If you can get over that hurdle and you conclude that they do, how do you best encourage the clarification of group purposes and boundaries, or establish the individual buy in needed to form groups that work?

These same issues exist for the other design principles. The second design principle calls for proportional equivalence between benefits and costs. But both benefits and costs are quite a bit harder to identify in a Facebook group or a school newspaper or a meditation group. In a common-pool resource the benefit is fairly concrete, as is the effort needed to produce that benefit. In many groups what is beneficial for one person may not be beneficial for another. For one person, being in a leadership role and expected to lead a meeting is a prize; for another it is a frightening nightmare.

Principle four calls for monitoring, which requires knowing how members advance or undermine the group, but some of these actions can be very hard to assess. If a member is usually quiet in group meetings, that could be their way of focusing on the material being discussed; another person could be spacing out, or contemplating leaving.

Principle five asks group members to establish and maintain graduated responses to violations, but that may be difficult if group members do not understand each other or know how to take each others perspective.

Ostrom’s design principles are clear in the abstract, but they did not emerge out of social intervention programs – turning them from descriptions of successful common-pool resource groups to general principles of group development requires additional work.

The ProSocial project is an active alliance of evolutionists and applied behavioral scientists. The development team decided to bring psychological flexibility principles drawn from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy into the mix because they fit the challenges of issues such as those above and they share the same functional, contextual, and evolutionist orientation as do the core design principles themselves. ACT seeks to manage psychological and behavioral variation, selection, and retention, in context, at the right level, and focused on the right dimension. Variation, selection and retention is managed by underlining the repertoire narrowing processes of avoidance and excessive rule government thus promoting healthy variation, selection behavior based on linkage to chosen values, and retaining behavior by deliberate practice and by commitment strategies. Context sensitivity, at the right level and dimension, is promoted by mindfulness awareness, flexible attention, and by a focus on the success of the whole person rather than the domination only of particular levels or domains (e.g., only “feeling good.”) The flexibility model underlying ACT was tried and true as an empirical guide to behavioral and social intervention – with a vast amount of data in support of the model and methods. It seems like a good fit to help strengthen the implementation of the design principles.

As the ProSocial team has explored the integration of psychological flexibility principles drawn from ACT with Ostrom’s design principles we have repeatedly seen that they work well together. Evolution science is a powerful force for consilience between sciences, domains, models, and theories. ProSocial is yet another proof of concept of that robust idea.

The ACT method we use in ProSocial is called “The Matrix” (Polk & Schoendorff, 2014). The Matrix draws two simple distinctions: the distinction between moving toward something versus moving away from something, and the distinction between actions anyone following you could see, and emotions, sensations, or thoughts that are sensed privately. The combination of these dimensions yields four quadrants: inner positive motivation; inner barriers (fear, feelings of inadequacy); actual overt behavior that moves away from positive motivation; and overt behavior that moves toward positive motivation. In ProSocial, members do a “double spin” around the Matrix – with the focus on each group member as an individual and then on the whole group.

During the individual spin members of a group are first asked one at a time to think of a hero or a guide – someone they respect in areas that seem somehow relevant to the group as a whole – and then to share with the group some of what this person does or stands for that seems important or honorable. This is a safe way to touch the “inside – toward” quadrant. The people we admire reveal qualities we value and by the group knowing something about what group members care about it is easier to consider what draws the group together and how to be fair with each other.

Group members then share a few safe examples of internal obstacles (e.g., worries; fears) that can get in the way of doing what is cared about (the “inside-away” quadrant) and what that can look like on the outside (the “action-away” quadrant). This can be important in helping group member understand what it may look like when group members are withdrawing, fostering conflict, or otherwise not supporting the group.

Finally group members share what it looks like in actual behavior when members are moving toward your values (the “action-toward” quadrant). This is a very important step because it gives the group a set of overt things we to look for to see if the group members are functioning well.

During the group spin of the Matrix, the same process is repeated with extensive group discussion for the objectives of the group as a whole. In a detailed, step by step process, the group discusses the positive goals for their group and what they are trying to accomplish by working together. They identify some of the mental experiences that may get in the way of realizing those goals and values as a group (e.g., thoughts about what others might think) and the actual actions that might interfere with progress (e.g., not sharing, keeping information to oneself, bullying, keeping quiet). Finally they specify the actions that members could take that might move the group toward its valued goals.

Group members are formally introduced to the Core Design Principles after their two spins through the Matrix, but the Matrix already begins to improve group functioning through an enhanced group identity and understanding of purpose (CP1). The discussions help to create a sense of shared values and vulnerabilities that make group members feel more connected. They begin to trust each other more, they feel safe and they understand why they are working together.

For groups to succeed, the individual has to be uplifted by the group. So many frameworks pit group interest against individual interest. By sharing positive and negative motivations and how they are expressed, a psychologically connected group is created that can work together even when the purposes of the group are relatively abstract. Selfishness is easier to identify and to confront in a graded fashion.

Some of the core design principles are directly impacted by thinking of them from the vantage point of psychological flexibility; some are impacted only indirectly in the willingness of the group to consider these design issues with care. We are excited to see, however, that this combination of behavioral science and evolution science feels integrated – each part supports the other

Our early experience with ProSocial suggests that the combination of evolutionary and contextual behavioral principles produces something more than the sum of the parts, something that may facilitate the conscious evolution of cooperation and prosociality. That is our hope.