One of my most important projects during the last decade has been ProSocial World, a practical method for improving the efficacy of groups and wellbeing of their members. It is based on a fusion of two collaborations. The first was with the political scientist Elinor Ostrom, who received the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 and sadly passed away in 2012. Her main achievement was to show that groups can successfully manage their natural resources, avoiding the so-called “tragedy of the commons”, if they possess certain core design principles (CDPs). With her associate Michael Cox, who is currently a professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College, we showed that the CDPs are needed for cooperation in all its forms, providing a blueprint that groups can implement to better manage their own affairs[i].

Implementing a new blueprint requires change, which can be difficult for individuals and even more so for groups. That’s where my second collaboration comes in with leaders in the applied behavioral sciences, including Steven C. Hayes, who founded a change method called Acceptance and Commitment Training[ii]. ACT (which is pronounced as one word) has a demonstrated ability to help people become more psychologically flexible to move toward valued goals. The same techniques can enable groups to become more organizationally flexible to implement the CDPs.

ProSocial.World has its own online magazine, where you can learn more about its two major components and how it has been used to help groups as diverse as a community radio station in the USA, a government agency in Australia, and villages in Sierra Leone, where it was used to combat the ebola epidemic in 2014. A new grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) will enable us to expand our capacity to work with groups around the world. But it wasn’t until last year that I had a Eureka! moment while working with my Binghamton colleague Pamela Sandoval, who is an expert on educational assessment. Why not use the method in our own college classes?

The idea that a semester-length course qualifies as a cooperative group takes some rethinking about what it means to teach. Depending on the discipline and inclination of the instructor, many courses are taught in an authoritarian manner. Students are given little choice in what or how they are taught. They listen, take notes, and then take exams. If the course is graded on a curve then students become outright competitors. Even In more student-centered classrooms cooperation among students is often limited to their participation in group projects, which sometimes work well but can be plagued by problems of coordination and unequal effort.

Yet, a semester-length course is a single group that can benefit from cooperation in many respects. There are norms of good behavior that can be upheld, such as regular attendance, doing reading assignments on time, and participating in class discussions. The teacher should be held accountable for such things as being well organized, grading assignments on time, and being open to student input on what is taught. Many of the newer pedagogical techniques that go beyond the “sage on the stage” style of teaching also require cooperation.

So, I decided to give it a try for my upper-level “Evolution and Sustainability” class during the spring 2018 semester, with 48 students. The topic area of sustainability was perfect, because I would be teaching about the CDPs and the challenges of personal and organizational change throughout the semester. By introducing this material at the start of the semester in the context of our class as a cooperative group, it would already be familiar when applied to the subject matter of the course.

Our practical method for working with groups includes the following steps: 1) An online survey that captures baseline information about each group member and their attitude toward their group; 2) An exercise called the ACT Matrix, which will be described in more detail below; 3) An online introduction to the CDPs and independent evaluation by each group member concerning how well each CDP is currently being implemented in the group; 4) The formation of short term actionable goals so that the group can “hit the ground running” at the end of the facilitation; and 5) the same online survey that was taken at the beginning to measure the effects of the facilitation.

Figure 1

For my class, the online survey was part of the first homework assignment, followed by the ACT Matrix exercise during the next class period. The Matrix is especially rapid form of ACT training[iii], consisting of an image with four quadrants (figure 1). The bottom two refer to our mental constructs while the top two refer to our observable actions. The right two refer to beliefs and actions that take us toward our valued goals, while the left two refer to beliefs and actions that take us away from our valued goals. The exercise during the class period consisted of a reflection on each quadrant. Starting with the lower right quadrant, why is this group important to us and what values does it represent? Moving to the lower left quadrant, what concerns, fears, doubts or negative sensations show up when you consider doing things to move towards what is important to you? Moving to the upper left quadrant, what do you do when you are really hooked by these internal experiences? Finally, moving to the upper right quadrant, how can we behave in ways that move us toward our valued goals? So, for example, a student might care about values like learning and collaboration. Then in the bottom left they might notice that they are afraid of looking silly if they speak up in the group, so in the top left they might note that they stay quiet in class, while in the top right they might note that they aim to speak up even when they feel shy or uncomfortable. The exercise ends by exploring with students how they might move in the direction of the goals in the top right, even in the presence of the difficult thoughts, emotions and sensations in the bottom left.

For each reflection, a few minutes were provided for students to write words and phrases in the appropriate quadrant of a matrix that they had drawn on a sheet of paper, followed by a few minutes to discuss their nominations. The entire exercise occupied approximately forty minutes. Afterwards, I collected the sheets of paper to collate the responses.

The ACT Matrix exercise is highly engaging and has a proven ability to help people and groups change in a positive direction. In evolutionary terms, it can be seen as a managed process of cultural evolution, including a carefully chosen target of selection and an increase in the repertoire of behaviors to reach the target. Here are a few of the many responses to the four reflections.

Lower left: Understanding sustainability; Preserving the future; Interdisciplinarity; A unified theoretical perspective; Developing critical thinking skills; Relevance to real-world problems.

Lower right: Shyness; fear of sounding stupid; wanting to show off; fear of being different; having one’s worldview challenged; laziness and other demands upon one’s time.

Upper right: Staying out of conversation; dominating the conversation; shooting down others; procrastination; intolerance; late assignments; getting distracted by the Internet.

Upper left: Be there; Put effort into work; Do reading assignments on time; Ask questions; Be tolerant of other opinions; praise strong ideas and constructively challenge weak ideas.

The next homework assignment was the online survey that introduced each student independently to the CDP’s shown in Figure 2, followed by four questions for each:

1) In your opinion, is this CDP important for your group? 2) Were you already aware of this CDP? 3) How well has your group already implemented this CDP? 4) How much has your group been handicapped by failing to implement this CDP? Verbal responses are gathered in addition to numerical ratings for a comprehensive self-examination of the CDPs. The survey is designed for groups that already exist and have a history of interactions among group members, so only some of the questions were applicable to a newly formed group such as my class. The students were therefore instructed to comment on how the CDPs could be implemented in the class and especially in the project groups that would be forming later in the semester. The class period following the homework assignment was devoted to a discussion of the CDPs and their own thoughts, based on the numerical and verbal responses to the survey.

In my class implementation of ProSocial, step 4 consisted of a review of the syllabus to see if any changes needed to be made in light of what we had learned about the CDPs. Then my students took the same online survey that had been given only a few class sessions earlier. The results were impressive. The Matrix exercise and introduction to the CDPs resulted in statistically significant gains in positive emotions toward the class, the perceived efficacy of the class, the degree to which the identity of the students had become fused with the class, their sense of psychological safety, and their sense of trust. These results might seem too good to be true, but not if you are familiar with the literature on ACT, which includes many well-documented examples of short trainings that produce big and long-lasting results [go here for more]. A little knowledge about managing cultural evolutionary processes can go a long way!

After the elements of ProSocial had been introduced to the students in the context of our own group, it was easy to bring them up again in the context of the course material. The main theme of my course is that nearly every important topic associated with sustainability involves both natural systems and human systems, which are each complex on their own and even more so when coupled with each other. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a single set of conceptual tools that could be applied to both? That is precisely what evolutionary theory (in combination with complexity theory) offers. The CDPs are relevant to the dynamics of cooperation in natural and human systems alike. The principles of ACT are needed whenever adopting a new policy requires behavioral and organizational change, which is all the time. These matters came up-- and were frequently initiated by the students--during nearly every class period.

The elements of ProSocial proved handy once again when the class split into smaller groups to study topics of their own choice (an example of CDP3, concerning decision-making). The first order of business for each group was to discuss how they would implement the CDPs to insure a cooperative social environment. By now this was second nature to them. I made myself available to help out with graduated sanctions (CDP5) and conflict resolution (CDP6), but my services weren’t needed. All of the project groups ran on an even keel.

Pamela also experimented with implementing ProSocial in her graduate class on Foundations in Secondary Education and an undergraduate class in Social Issues in Education, to good effect. Even though it took me a while to make the connection, I now think that classrooms provide a fantastic opportunity to implement ProSocial. Unlike some groups, which find it difficult to carve out meeting times and complete surveys between meetings, students in a course are already meeting on a regular basis and expect to be assigned homework. The facilitation requires very little time and in many cases will be highly relevant to the subject of the course, as it was to mine. If a sufficient number of instructors become interested and coordinate their implementations, then rigorous assessments are possible. If you are instructor of a college or high school course and wish to join such a coordinated effort, please contact Paul Atkins at to provide contact information. Once we have a group of people who want to take part, we will contact you to plan how best to make it happen together.

Wilson, D. S., Ostrom, E., & Cox, M. E. (2013). Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 90, S21–S32.

[ii] Wilson, D. S., & Hayes, S. C. (2018). Evolution and Contextual Behavioral Science: An Integrated Framework for Understanding, Predicting, and Influencing Behavior. Menlo Park, CA: New Harbinger Press.

[iii] Polk, K. L., Schoendorff, B., & Wilson, K. G. (2014). The ACT Matrix: A New Approach to Building Psychological Flexibility Across Settings and Populations. Reno, NV: Context Press.