What is Prosocial — A short introduction to 3 big ideas

This is a short introduction to Prosocial that we have used in the Facilitator Training course, written in 2018.

So what is this Prosocial thing. We (the team of people collaborating to bring you Prosocial) think of it as four main things:

  1. A set of ideas and concepts
  2. A process for enhancing cooperation in groups
  3. A community of practice, and
  4. A research program

In the facilitator training course, we teach you the ideas and the process — and you will be in a great place to join the community after the course is over. We hope that we can interest you in getting involved in the research as well because it can both improve your own practice and make the Prosocial process more attractive for groups with whom you might want to work.

Let’s talk a bit about the process and why it’s special. 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 from these examples.

When I learned about multilevel selection theory, my first response was “but I don’t want to be a termite!” My individual identity is precious to me. Talk of suppression of self-interested behaviour all sounded a little bit like a totalitarian state to me. 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!

This is all sounding very lofty so let’s bring it down to practicalities. You are here because you are interested in learning to make the groups to which you belong more effective. I mentioned earlier that David Sloan Wilson brought together two big ideas. One of them was multi-level selection. The other was the work of Elinor Ostrom who studied groups all around the world managing shared resources like fisheries and water supplies. In such situations, economists predict a phenomenon known as the “tragedy of the commons” where each individual will act to extract as much as possible of the shared resource, ultimately depleting it for everybody else. Ostrom showed that this did not happen if certain enabling conditions were in place. She described 8 design principles which David recognised were a good description of the conditions needed to suppress individual selfishness and promote cooperation in all groups. Since that time, the Prosocial development team has further adapted the principles slightly to ensure that they not only suppress individual selfishness but also create the conditions for individual thriving. Whereas Ostrom was focused on the problem of discouraging people from over-exploiting a resource, the broader issue of encouraging cooperation in any group requires positive reinforcement for helpful behaviours not just means for sanctioning unhelpful behaviours. In this course, you will learn all about how we currently think about the core design principles.

So, we have introduced two big ideas underpinning Prosocial: multilevel selection theory and Elinor Ostrom’s core design principles. 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 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.

I research and write about creating greater cooperation and harmony in the world. I am co-founder of www.prosocial.world and author of the book “Prosocial”.