The Science Behind PROSOCIAL

PROSOCIAL is informed by three areas of science. The idea that groups require core design principles to function well is inspired by the work of Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012), a political scientist who studied groups that attempt to manage resources such as fields, forests, fisheries, and water for irrigation. These are called common-pool resources (CPR) because they must be shared by groups of people and cannot easily be privatized. They are vulnerable to a problem called “the tragedy of the commons” by the ecologist Garrett Hardin in a classic article published in Science magazine in 1968. Hardin imagined a village with a common pasture that could used by all of the villagers. He noted that each villager had an incentive to add more of their own livestock, even though the pasture might become overgrazed as a result. Working with a worldwide database of information on CPR groups that she helped to create, Ostrom showed that they are able to avoid the tragedy of the commons if they possess certain core design principles.  Her results were so contrary to conventional economic wisdom that Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for her achievement.

The second area of science informing PROSOCIAL is evolutionary theory. Many thousands of species live in groups and all of them face the same problem as far as the evolution of cooperation is concerned. Cooperation requires group members to coordinate their activities and provide services for each other. These “altruistic” or “solid citizen” behaviors are vulnerable to exploitation by individuals who accept social benefits without providing them to others. Special conditions are required for cooperation to evolve despite its selective disadvantage within groups, which correspond closely to the core design principles identified by Ostrom for human CPR groups. David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionary scientist who specializes in the study of cooperation and altruism. He worked with Ostrom and her associate Michael Cox to generalize her core design principles approach in two respects: First, by showing that they follow from the evolutionary dynamics of cooperation in all species and our own evolutionary history as a highly cooperative species. Second, because they apply to all forms of cooperation, they apply to a much wider diversity of human groups than CPR groups. Almost any group of people attempting to work together to achieve common goals can benefit from the core design principles. Wilson, Ostrom and Cox’s collaboration resulted in article titled “Generalizing the Core Design Principles for the Efficacy of Groups”, which was published in the Journal of Economic and Behavior Organization in 2013 and provides part of the scientific foundation for PROSOCIAL. 

The third area of science informing PROSOCIAL is called Contextual Behavioral Science (CBS), which includes methods for accomplishing positive behavioral change in individuals (Behavioral, Cognitive, and Mindfulness-based therapy), groups (Industrial and Organizational Psychology) and whole populations (Prevention Science). At the same time that Wilson was collaborating with Ostrom and Cox, he was working with major figures in CBS such as Steven C. Hayes, who helped to found a therapeutic method called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced as one word), and Anthony Biglan, past president of the Society for Prevention Research. They and some of their associates became excited about creating a practical framework for improving the efficacy of groups based on an integration of the core design principles approach and their science-based methods for accomplishing positive behavioral change. One outcome of this collaboration is an article titled “Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change, which was published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2014 and provides another part of the scientific foundation for PROSOCIAL. 

In addition to these scientific collaborations, three institutions have contributed to the creation of PROSOCIAL. The first and primary institution is the Evolution Institute, a think tank co-founded by Wilson that formulates public policy from an evolutionary perspective. The second is the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS), a society co-founded by Steven C. Hayes that now numbers over 7000 members worldwide, some of whom can serve as coaches for PROSOCIAL groups. The third is New Harbinger Publications, which publishes evidence-based professional and self-help books, and its affiliated company Praxis, which organizes continuing education and training events in CBS. Over a period of five years, the Evolution Institute and ACBS have applied the “core design principles” approach to real-world settings as diverse as urban neighborhoods, schools, churches, businesses, intentional communities, hospitals, and even villages in the African nation of Sierra Leone to help them cope with the Ebola epidemic. 

The involvement of New Harbinger/Praxis has enabled us to create an internet platform for PROSOCIAL that can accommodate an unlimited number of groups. In addition to providing a practical framework for improving the efficacy of groups, the internet platform will provide a scientific database for continuing research on the efficacy of groups, similar in spirit to the database assembled by Ostrom and her associates for CPR groups. We look forward to engaging our groups in the excitement of scientific discovery in addition to the practical benefits provided by PROSOCIAL.  

Our research respects the privacy of individuals and groups and has been approved by Binghamton University’s Human Subject Review Board. When we report results, it will be in the form of aggregate statistics (such as averages and standard deviations) that cannot be traced to any individual or group. If we want to discuss any individual or group by name, we will secure written permission. You will be asked to sign a consent form as part of the first step of the online course and you are free to stop participating in PROSOCIAL at any time. 

PROSOCIAL is governed by a team of distinguished behavioral scientists [link] that looks forward to working with an expanding community of groups. Here is a list of books and articles relevant to PROSOCIAL for those who want to learn more about its scientific foundation. 


Books and articles relevant to PROSOCIAL

Biglan, A. (2015). The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World. Oakland CA: New Harbinger Publications; 1 edition.

Bond, F. W., Flaxman, P. E., & Livheim, F. (2013). The Mindful and Effective Employee: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Training Manual for Improving Well-Being and Performance. Oakland CA: New Harbinger.

Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162, 1243–1248.

Hayes, S. C., & Smith, S. (2005). Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland CA: New Harbinger.

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., & Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford.

Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The Evolution of institutions for collective Action. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ostrom, E. (2010). Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems. American Economic Review, 100, 1–33.

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.

Wilson, D. S. (2015). Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Wilson, D. S., Hayes, S. C., Biglan, A., & Embry, D. (2014). Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37, 395–460.

Wilson, D. S., Kauffman, R. A., & Purdy, M. S. (2011). A Program for At-risk High School Students Informed by Evolutionary Science. PLoS ONE, 6(11), e27826.

Wilson, D. S., Marshall, D., & Iserhott, H. (2011). Empowering Groups That Enable Play. American Journal of Play, 3(4), 523–538.

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.