The Origins of PROSOCIAL

A turning point in my life came when I decided to study prosociality in the real world. The very word “prosocial” is used mostly by egghead professors such as myself and is unfamiliar to the average Joe. Microsoft Word doesn’t even recognize it as a word and keeps telling me that I have misspelled something. Nevertheless, it is a very useful word that deserves to be on everyone’s lips. Perhaps PROSOCIAL, the practical method for working with groups that resulted from my odyssey, will make that happen.

The word “prosocial” refers to anything—such as an attitude, belief, behavior, or institution—that is oriented toward the welfare of others or society as a whole. It includes but goes beyond the word “altruism”, which implies that helping others requires a degree of self-sacrifice. The word “prosocial” is agnostic on that point. If it’s possible to do well for oneself by doing good, then so much the better.

My passion as an egghead professor was to show how prosocial behaviors can evolve in a Darwinian world. Since natural selection favors individuals that survive and reproduce better than other individuals, it’s hard to see how prosocial behaviors (especially of the altruistic variety) can evolve. Yet, prosocial individuals can win the Darwinian contest if they confine their interactions to each other and avoid the depredations of more self-serving individuals. Darwin himself began this line of reasoning and I was carrying the same torch into the 21st century. It was a Big Idea with implications throughout the biological and human-related sciences. I could have spent my entire life inside the Ivory Tower.

What kicked me out of the Ivory Tower was my desire to study the eternal contest between prosocial behaviors (call them High-Pro) and more self-oriented behaviors (call them Low-Pro) playing out in the real world.  Working with the superintendent of the Binghamton City School District, a wonderful woman named Peggy Wozniak, I was able to measure individual differences in prosociality in several thousand high school students. I was also able to measure the social support that these students received from their families, neighborhoods, school, churches, and extracurricular activities. Finally, I was able to tag all of this information to the residential location of the students, sticking to rigorous human subject research protocols of course.

Unsurprisingly, individual differences in prosociality resembled a bell-shaped curve, with a few extremely High-Pros, a few extremely Low-Pros, and most people in between. The most important result of the study was a high correlation (about 0.7) between the prosociality of the individual and the prosociality of the individual’s social environment. Very simply, those who gave also tended to receive, which is the basic requirement for prosocial behaviors to survive in a Darwinian world.

As with all statistical correlations, there were exceptions to the rule. Some people on the High-Pro side of the bell curve gave without getting and some on the Low-Pro side got without giving. However, the High-Pros were able to benefit from each other enough to offset the occasional depredation of Low-Pros. That was the meaning of the high correlation between the prosociality of the individual and the prosociality of the individual’s social environment.

Lest you think that Low-Pros are bad people, imagine that you are a High-Pro with the bad luck of being surrounded by Low-Pros. What are your options? First, you can try to leave if you can. Second, you can try to convert your Low-Pro partners into High-Pros. Third, you can defensively turn off your own prosociality, in which case you will become a Low-Pro, at least for the time being. Fourth, you can remain a High-Pro and suffer the consequences. While the low end of the bell curve might include some social predators, it also includes people who have defensively switched their prosociality to the “off” position under conditions that would probably make us do the same. Have sympathy for the Low-Pro. What’s needed for them and for everyone is to provide a social environment that makes it safe to be a High-Pro, which is exactly what PROSOCIAL strives to do.

The maps of the city of Binghamton that emerged from this research were riveting to the eye. They showed a mosaic of patches representing neighborhoods in which most of the students were High-Pro (dark) or Low-Pro (light).

Map of Binghamton, NY, indicating levels of prosociality

Map of Binghamton, NY, indicating levels of prosociality

On a scale where an individual can score between 0 and 100 on prosociality,  neighborhoods could differ by as many as 50 points. To me, these maps looked a lot like the distribution maps of a species such as a plant—dark patches where it is abundant and light patches where it is rare. If we were conservation biologists who wanted to increase the abundance of the species, we would reason that the light patches lack the right growth conditions for the plant and we would work to provide the growth conditions. The maps were helping me to see that a human behavioral strategy such as prosociality is like a biological species. It has a “distribution and abundance” in modern life based on selection pressures. True, what’s evolving is not genes but behavioral options in flexible individuals, but the evolutionary dynamics are much the same.

Once I completed this first study I was hooked. Studying prosociality in the real world was all I wanted to do. I proudly called my new line of research the Binghamton Neighborhood Project. Then two things happened in rapid order. First, I began to meet other scientists who had been playing this game a lot longer than I had.  Second, I had the opportunity to create a think tank that would enable me to play the game anywhere in the world, not just my hometown of Binghamton, New York.

The scientists I came to know included Tony Biglan, Steve Hayes, and Dennis Embry. They hailed from disciplines that I had never heard of before, such as Prevention Science and Contextual Behavioral Science. Whatever they called themselves, they and their colleagues were very good at “evolving” prosociality in the real world at scales ranging from individuals (e.g., psychotherapy), small groups (e.g., school classrooms), and large populations (e.g., the campaign against smoking). At first I wondered if I had anything to offer, but they were as excited by my evolutionary perspective as I was by their practical accomplishments. We began to refer to ourselves affectionately as The Four Amigos.

The invitation to create a think tank came from Jerry Lieberman, a retired political scientist and lifelong humanist who wanted to create a science-based think tank and was persuaded by my book Evolution for Everyone that it should be informed by evolutionary theory. The first few years of the Evolution Institute were like a roller coaster. Our first major donor was Bernard Winograd, a top executive of the Prudential Corporation at the time who has since sadly passed away. When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, Bernard prompted me to begin rethinking economics from an evolutionary perspective, which continues to this day (you can read all about it on, which was started with the help of the Evolution Institute). As part of that adventure, I met Elinor Ostrom just before she won the Nobel prize in economics in 2009 and another key piece of PROSOCIAL fell into place.

Lin, as she insisted everyone should call her, received the prize for showing that groups of people are able to manage resources such as forests, pastures, fisheries, and irrigation systems—but only if the groups possess certain core design principles. Conventional economic wisdom held that these resources are vulnerable to “the tragedy of the commons”—since every member of the group is tempted to take more than their fair share—and that the only solutions were to privatize the resource (if possible) or impose top-down regulation.  The fact that real-world groups could manage their own affairs was so astounding to the economics profession that it merited their highest honor.

I was somewhat familiar with Lin’s work before we met, but when I paid closer attention I realized how much her core design principles dovetailed with my work on prosociality. Very simply, a group that strongly implements the core design principles provides a safe and secure environment for the expression of prosociality, making it difficult to behave as a Low-Pro and get away with it. Moreover, nearly all groups whose members must work together to achieve common goals should benefit from the core design principles—not just the kinds of groups that Lin studied. From the time I met her in 2009 until her death from cancer in 2012, I worked with Lin and her postdoctoral associate Michael Cox to integrate her core design principle approach with evolutionary theory, resulting in an academic article titled “Generalizing the Core Design Principles for the Efficacy of Groups”, which was published in 2013.  The opportunity to collaborate with Lin was one of the peak experiences of my life.

Another thing that struck me about the core design principles, apart from their generality, was their practicality.


Ostrom’s Design Principles for Group Efficacy

They seemed to offer a blueprint that real-world groups could use to improve their performance. The blueprint didn’t specify how the core design principles should be implemented. That might depend a lot on local circumstances and the type of group. But the blueprint did specify that the core design principles should be implemented. I began to think about how I could help members of a group learn about the core design principles, evaluate their group with respect to the core design principles, and then take steps to better implement the core design principles as they saw fit. That was the seed that grew into PROSOCIAL.

Years before PROSOCIAL existed as an Internet platform and network of facilitators, I began to use the core design principles to “evolve” prosociality in my hometown of Binghamton. Separate projects involved neighborhood associations, schools, and churches. Through the Evolution Institute, I began to conduct research on business groups and intentional communities. These projects affirmed the generality of the core design principles for all sorts of groups. They also revealed the challenges of attempting to implement the core design principles in real-world situations. It’s not just a matter of learning about them—after all, they are very easy to understand. The reason that the core design principles are not implemented more widely is because they are often resisted by people who don’t want to share power or whose interests crosscut the interests of the group.

One of our greatest achievements, and also one of our greatest disappointments, was a “school within a school” for 9th and 10th grade students in the Binghamton City High School who had flunked most of their classes during the previous year and would be very likely to drop out before graduating. With a small staff provided by Peggy Wozniak and one of my graduate students named Rick Kauffman playing a large role, we used the core design principles (and two auxiliary principles important for the context of teaching) as a blueprint for organizing the school. We also used a randomized control design–the gold standard for scientific assessment–by recruiting twice as many students than we could accommodate. Half were randomly chosen to enter the program and the other half experienced the normal high school routine. One year later, not only did the students in our program vastly outperform the comparison group on the state-mandated exams that everyone took, but they even performed on a par with the average Binghamton high school student. There were also gains in non-academic student wellbeing. Here was strong evidence that the core design principles approach could “evolve” prosociality even in the toughest of circumstances.

That was the achievement. The disappointment came when Peggy retired and the new school superintendent terminated the program, trusting her own judgment more than our numbers. This was a massive violation of design principles three (concerning decision-making) and seven (concerning local autonomy), but there was nothing we could do about it. Several years later, she was removed by a unanimous decision of the school board. Her dictatorial style had been ruinous for the whole school system, not just our program. It’s people like that who make it difficult to implement the core design principles.

Some of our other projects were put on hold when a supportive progressive mayor was replaced by a less supportive conservative mayor.  These disappointments taught me by experience what I already knew theoretically: The same core design principles are needed at all levels of a multi-tier social hierarchy. If they are lacking at a higher level, such as the school system or city administration, then they are likely to be disrupted at a lower level, such as a school program or a neighborhood association. Design principles seven and eight address the relationship between any given group and the multi-group “ecosystem” that it inhabits.

Based in part on these regrettable experiences, I began to pursue a dream that had occurred to me earlier—an Internet platform that could be used by an unlimited number of groups without requiring the permission of higher ups. Think Facebook,, or Basecamp, except providing ever so much more guidance on how to function as a group than those platforms. The current version of PROSOCIAL is a solid step toward that ambitious goal.

PROSOCIAL provides a home page for each group and an online training course on the core design principles, but it also provides something else that brings us back to my Amigos—a procedure for increasing psychological flexibility and working toward valued goals that is adapted from Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT, pronounced as one word), which was developed by Steve Hayes and others primarily for individuals but which can also work for groups. I’ll let Steve tell that part of the story, but the ACT part of PROSOCIAL can go a long way toward overcoming the difficulties that often stand in the way of implementing the core design principles.

PROSOCIAL was developed with financial support from the Evolution Institute and Paul Monaghan when he was acting as head of the Social Goals Department of the Cooperative Group of the UK, a large consortium of cooperative businesses. The Internet platform was developed by New Harbinger Press, a publisher of science-based professional and self-help books in the areas of psychology, health, and personal growth.

PROSOCIAL is currently available for use by groups free of charge, but it is best used with the help of a facilitator. We are currently building a network of facilitators that is based around the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, which numbers over 7000 members worldwide.

Finally, I have discovered to my pleasure that I can study prosociality in the real world while keeping one foot in the Ivory Tower. PROSOCIAL doubles as a scientific database in addition to providing a practical method for working with real-world groups. Thanks to our scientific orientation, we will advance basic knowledge and improve our own ability to work with real-world groups as the project develops

I’ve come a long way from the start of my scientific odyssey and there is still a long way to go. I look forward to continuing my journey in the company of a growing community of PROSOCIAL users.

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David Sloan Wilson is President of the Evolution Institute and SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. His most recent book is Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others.

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