The moment the line between you and “the other” begins to blur.

So, none of his kind of views of people like me were correct. Because when I left him, I said Look what does this mean? The fact that, you know, you think of me as a friend now. He said well maybe it kind of opens me up to speaking to other people who are also different from me. And he actually honored that.

The above quote is from an interview with documentary filmmaker Deeyah Khan on Today Explained regarding her film, White Right: Meeting the Enemy, in which she engages with white supremacists to understand who they are as individuals and why they think the way they do. A subsequent episode interviews Ms. Khan about her related documentary film, Jihad: A Story of the Others, in which she engages jihadists.

Both films highlight how making personal connections can transform an “other” into a human being – someone you can relate to and empathize with. As Ms. Khan points out, it is “… one of the tools in our larger toolbox [for confronting] racism,” and (she would likely agree) for confronting other socio-economic or ideological phenomena that divide us.

Looking at this from a cultural multilevel selection (CMLS) perspective,e.g. 1,2,3 this process of seeing an individual “other” as human, and of equating that realization to the larger population of “others,” can contribute to shifting the level of selection from within subgroups at a lower level to between groups at a higher level. Instead of “white supremacists” or “Islamic jihadists” existing as formal subgroups, distinct from and standing in opposition to other subgroups within society or society at large, the formal boundaries around them begin to fade as members see their connections to others they’ve been told were the enemy.

Poking holes in these subgroups’ underlying ideology negatively impacts the uniformity of the subgroups – white supremacists, Islamic jihadists, etc. Uniformity (of ideology in this case) is a necessary component for having cohesive, successful groups – without it group members are prone to fall away back into the larger population pool. And the empathy other societal members may develop for these radical subgroup members, generated from these interactions, further erodes both the uniformity of these subgroups and their perceived differences from society at large. The variation in critical aspects of the world view between the individuals within these subgroups and “the other” decreases.

And this is important because variation, along with the associated relative fitness differences, are necessary components for selection to operate. As the variation between the ideologies held by white supremacists, Islamic jihadists, and other members of society decreases, so does the relative fitness differences between these sub-groups, and the strength of selection forces operating at this subgroup (within group) level.

Under such conditions, prosocial behaviors that benefit the larger societal group are more likely to occur, even if they come at some cost to the individuals performing the actions. Prosocial refers to attitudes, behaviors, or institutions that benefit others or society as a whole.4 And this is sorely needed considering all of the interconnected challenges facing humanity and the speed with which we need to address them.

But as Ms. Khan further points out, creating opportunities for connections and engagement is only the beginning. This should lead to addressing underlying societal issues that are the primary sources of division, such as racism, disparity of economic opportunity, unequal access to health care, etc. Because addressing these also removes the variation that exists within subgroups in society – and this is variation that results in significant fitness differentials at the individual and subgroup level. We know that lack of adequate health care can result in an early death. And lack of educational opportunity can limit one’s ability to be successful in life and provide for one’s family, including the future of your current or future children. It shouldn’t be surprising that people will fight to eliminate these fitness differentials as subgroups compete, both non-violently and violently.

These engagements with “the other” need to occur throughout society and in our day-to-day lives. Not just across political, racial, ethnic, socio-economic, gender, or age group lines, but also across the lines that divide careers/professions, disciplines, education levels, and intellectual traditions. As I work in the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) Industry, I’ll use it for further exploration.

The design/construction process consists of a variety of key stakeholder groups directly and indirectly involved throughout the process, collaborating together to varying degrees. But while they may be working together to build or renovate a facility, each group also has their own self-interests that are often in conflict with the interests of other groups as well as society at large.

Every consultant and contractor is seeking to maximize their own profits relative to the services they’ve been contracted to perform on a given project, though this is also typically balanced with a need to maintain a reputation in the industry for being responsive to clients, knowledgeable experts, and doing good work. However, even protecting one’s reputation can lead to consultants and contractors throwing each other under the bus when things go awry.

The building owner/developer is trying to maximize what they’re getting from the consultants and contractors relative to the services contracted, as part of their larger effort to maximize profits. If occupying the building, the building owner/developer also wants to minimize building operations costs and maximize organizational productivity (relative to the building’s impacts). If not occupying the building, the owner/developer wants to minimize construction costs while maximizing selling price (if selling) or maximizing rental rates and minimizing operational costs (if leasing/renting the space).

Building operators want a building that’s easy to operate and maintain, and one that minimizes the amount of complaints they receive from the building occupants. If their success is at least partially judged by minimizing building operating costs and energy consumption (via utility bills), then they’ll have an interest in driving those down as well. Building occupants want to be comfortable, have control over their personal environment (which often puts them in conflict with building operators), and be given environments that help them accomplish their daily tasks. And depending on the budget, facility type, groups of occupants, methods of engagement, etc., different groups of building occupants often end up in conflict over these issues – during design, after occupancy, or both.

The larger divisions and power differentials that exist in society often come into play as well. Will a conservative community allow a school district to address the needs of their transgender students via genderless restrooms? Will a city’s government allow development resulting in gentrification and the displacement of lower socio-economic status individuals or people of color? Does a project’s steering committee have adequate representation of women, people with disabilities, ethnicities, faiths, etc. If needs and world views aren’t represented, they will more than likely be addressed superficially or even ignored.

While the above is a simplification of each group’s drivers, you can see how for any given project there is a strong possibility that distinct boundaries will be “drawn” between these groups as they compete to fulfill their own interests relative to the project. Instead of an overall cohesive “project group” cooperating to achieve an agreed to project vision and set of goals there ends up being a large degree of variation in sub-group interests that selection can act upon, resulting in divisive competition. What’s needed is a process that a) initially aligns the various sub-group interests into a set of common project focused goals, removing or at least decreasing the variation, and then b) maintains that alignment throughout the design/construction process.

Enter Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist and recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize for economics, who identified eight principles that underlie the successful cooperation of group members,5 summarized below. These principles, when successfully implemented for a given context, are able to achieve and maintain this alignment among subgroups.

  1. A strong group identity, including understanding and agreeing with the group’s purpose.
  2. Benefits proportional to costs, so that the work does not fall unfairly on some individuals and unearned benefits on others.
  3. Consensus decision-making, since most people dislike being told what to do but will work hard to achieve their own goals.
  4. Low-cost monitoring, so that lapses of cooperation can be easily detected.
  5. Graduated sanctions to correct misbehaviors, which begin with friendly reminders and escalate only as needed.
  6. Conflict resolution that is fast and perceived as fair by group members.
  7. Sufficient autonomy for the group to make its own decisions without interference from other groups.
  8. Relations among groups that embody the same principles as the relations among individuals within the group.6,7

I’ve discussed Ostrom’s principles in relation to the design/construction process in detail elsewhere,8 along with how Integrated Design, Human Centered Design, the Owner’s Project Requirements, and other industry practices have varying degrees of success because they fulfill certain aspects of these principles. Two key reasons being that they often facilitate a) early identification of the relevant key stakeholder groups and b) subsequent personal connections between them. This can generate understanding and empathy of the various needs and expectations relevant to the project, which is necessary to reconcile differences and land on a single project vision and set of goals that everyone agrees to. Ostrom’s principles can then be used to help maintain that vision and set of goals throughout the design/construction process.

But how is this done more consistently? How do we make it scalable to a variety of project types and scopes?

BranchPattern, a high-performance building consulting firm I work for, is paving one potential path for making this business as usual. We’ve divided the effort to create the necessary internal change into two phases. Phase one consists of transitioning the firm to a human-centered design approach, or mindset, that frames how we deliver our services. We’ve developed our own version of this, the D.I.V.E. Project Framework®, that places the key stakeholders and their interactions with the environment, building systems, etc., at the center of the design/construction process. D.I.V.E. stands for the framework’s four phases: Discovery, Iteration, Validation, and Evolution.

By identifying the relevant key stakeholders early, engaging them in the design process, and facilitating meaningful connections between them, it increases the likelihood that there is general acceptance of the project’s vision and goals as well as alignment of the building’s capabilities with stakeholder needs (short and long-term) and abilities. It will help reconcile varying needs and expectations among the different stakeholder groups, limiting the variation and associated fitness differentials that selection can operate on and lead to competition among the stakeholder groups.

We’re in the middle of this transition now, having developed and implemented a D.I.V.E. 101 Learning Path set of courses firm-wide, currently building and testing scalable processes and tools, and creating a sense of agency among our specialists to apply this in their day-to-day work. Over the next six months we’ll be implementing and iterating the D.I.V.E. Project Framework® on a variety of project types and scopes, from those where the owner and design/construction team are fully engaged in the process to those where we’re implementing relative to only our own services in the background. We’ll have a series of case studies to help us further improve as well as share with the industry.

This will pave the way to Phase Two. Upon approval from the firm’s leadership, phase two will consist of integrating Ostrom’s principles into the D.I.V.E. Project Framework® using the Evolution Institute’s ProSocial Project. ProSocial uses cultural multilevel selection (CMLS) theory to frame Ostrom’s eight principles9 and then draws on methods from contextual behavioral science, including Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT), to help individual group members or a set of groups implement the principles in a contextually relevant manner. In this case the groups in question are the key stakeholder groups involved in the design/construction process.

I recently took a ProSocial Facilitators Course, taught by Dr. Paul Atkins, Senior Research Fellow with the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education (Australian Catholic University), who serves as the Project Coordinator for the international design team implementing ProSocial. The course provides a) an introduction into contextual behavioral science and a particular ACT method called the Matrix, b) instruction on how to apply the matrix in groups to facilitate implementation of Ostrom’s principles, and c) the opportunity to practice its application. Upon completion of the course I developed a plan for integrating ProSocial into the D.I.V.E. Project Framework® to strengthen its ability to reconcile differences among the different key stakeholder groups as well as maintain the agreed to project vision and set of goals throughout the design/construction process.

After implementation on several projects, as with Phase One, we’ll have several more case studies to help improve our internal application of ProSocial, as well as share with the industry and with the ProSocial Project. The ProSocial development team is building its own database of case studies for reference, study, and improvement of the ProSocial process to make it easier to apply to wide variety of groups and organizations. They’re also looking at how to scale this upwards to not just the community level, but also to the national and global scale. For those interested in learning more I’d recommend This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution by David Sloan Wilson, Evolution & Contextual Behavioral Science, edited by David Sloan Wilson and Steven C. Hayes, and the forthcoming ProSocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups by Paul Atkins, David Sloan Wilson, and Steven C. Hayes.

Addressing the long list of interconnected challenges facing humanity – climate change, environmental degradation, racism, misogyny, economic disparity, etc., in the design charrette, the city council meeting, or the halls of Congress – requires that we blur the line between ourselves and “the other.” Finding systematic methods for doing so, rooted in the social and behavioral sciences and in evolutionary theory, can help us move in this direction sooner rather than later (or not at all). And considering this long list of challenges, sooner is definitely preferable to later.


  1. Hillis, V., A. Bell, J. Brandt, and J. Brooks. 2018. Applying a cultural multilevel selection framework to the adoption of sustainable management practices in California viticulture. Sustainability Science 13(1): 71-80.
  2. Kline, M. A., T. M. Waring, and J. Salerno. 2018. Designing cultural multilevel selection research for sustainability science. Sustainability Science 13(1): 9-19.
  3. Wilson, D.S. 2015. Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  4. Wilson 2015 ref. 3 above.
  5. Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  6. Wilson, D. S., R. A. Kauffman, Jr, and M. S. Purdy. 2011. A Program for At-Risk High School Students Informed by Evolutionary Science. PLoS ONE 6(11): e27826.
  7. Wilson, D. S., E. Ostrom, E., and M.E. Cox. 2013. Generalizing the Core Design Principles for the Efficacy of Groups. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 90, S21–S32.
  8. Harmon, M. J. 2018. Constructing Our Niches: The Application of Evolutionary Theory to the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) Industry. Evolution Institute. September 28, 2018.
  9. Wilson et al. 2013 ref. 7 above.

Header image: "Muslim Girls" by Shazron / Flickr.