Balancing personal and collective interests with Prosocial in the time of COVID-19

By A/Prof Paul Atkins

Prosocial.World, The Prosocial Institute and The Australian National University


How is Coronavirus changing how you relate to the people around you? Even if you are not allowed to go outside, how is it changing how you think about the people you see on the news, those who care for you and whom you care for, and the people you see through the tiny windows of your teleconferencing app?

Here in Australia we are in a kind of partial lock down, people are still walking the streets but we veer around one another, making sure to keep at least 1.5m apart. Yesterday I did an elaborate dance in a shop with the man wanting to also buy broccoli. I have tried to smile more than usual, to be polite and cognizant of others around me – not in a kind of ‘has he got the virus?’ way, but more like ‘here is another human being, also trying to get by and also probably afraid’.  But I also see people backing away from me, and I back away from them. All these strange new rituals, and all these new thoughts and emotions that we had not even imagined. Something significant has shifted, and nothing is as certain as it was just two weeks ago.

And yet this time presents us with an extraordinary opportunity. The ground for our collective story has shifted so completely that we have a space in history to write a new story. A story that no longer takes as truth that we are separate and selfish, but instead recognises that we are utterly interconnected and we are smart enough to work out our differences, and cooperate vastly more effectively.  Let me see if I can show you some of the elements of the old story we need to replace, and how we might replace it.

In 1968, Garrett Hardin published an article called “The Tragedy of the Commons” which has become a staple of first year economics classes. In it, he argued persuasively that individual conscience would not suffice for managing selfishness, and that we must regulate to control selfishness to avoid such problems as resource depletion, pollution and an exploding population. This line of thinking, that we are selfish and separate utility maximizers has since dominated economics, public policy and, incrementally, the way that we think of ourselves as human beings.

The tragedy of the commons refers specifically to situations where the incentives for the individual are such that it seems best to act out of self-interest, even though this is bad for the group as a whole.   The classic case is grazing cattle on a commons. As the argument goes, at every point of decision making, the utility of acting selfishly far outweighs any individual costs, and the collective costs are ignored.  “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

So what does all this have to do with COVID-19?   The power of the tragedy of the commons argument is that it is recognisable in almost every social situation we encounter. Why shouldn’t I hoard toilet paper or face masks or hand cleanser? The utility to me of knowing I will have enough, far exceeds the small costs of any twinges of guilt I might feel when I watch the news and see others unable to satisfy their basic needs.  Why shouldn’t I go out and do the things I enjoy? The utility to me of going to the cafe far exceeds the tiny possibility I might infect someone else unknowingly.

But while the tragedy of the commons argument nicely highlights one aspect of our social lives, it unfortunately obscures much more. Most notably, we are not in any sense independent of one another. We are instead locked in an “inescapable network of mutuality” (as Martin Luther King once penned), embedded in the endless feedback loops of social interdependence.  Perhaps my visit to the café will support the local shop owner or maybe it might help me avoid depression and thereby becoming a burden on the medical system. What is the common good anyway?

The reality is that while we are programmed by evolution to look after the integrity and welfare of our own organism, we are also deeply programmed to help those around us.  Humans are the most cooperative of species, and language and imagination have exponentially increased our capacity to cooperate, allowing us to construct rules, policies and institutions that benefit everybody.

Our interests are not an immutable internal force, they are dynamically constructed in response to what we see others doing.   Research shows that, if I think you are going to be kind and compassionate and socially minded, I am much more likely to participate in voting, in community support groups and other forms of prosociality. Why? Because I know that I am less likely to be exploited.

We are certainly capable of being highly cooperative, but we will only be so if we think there is a high likelihood that others will also be cooperative. From a game theoretic perspective, it is hard to beat a benevolent tit-for-tat approach; sensitive to when we are being exploited and careful to take care of ourselves, but also initially assuming the best, being kind and then continuing to forgive in the face of the inevitable slipups of social interactions.

To the extent that the media screens images of people fighting in supermarkets, or selfishly walking the streets, it is easy for us to think that others are not cooperating so why should we?  But this race to the bottom can just as easily be a race to the top, by having a new kind of conversation, with ourselves and with others. It is to that kind of conversation, which we call the Prosocial process, that I now turn.

The Prosocial project (see is trying to create a new kind of conversation, including in response to the coronavirus, a conversation that happens in a particular way that acknowledges both our love of belonging and cooperation, and also our fight/flight instincts that make us want to close up and run away.

Prosocial begins with the acknowledgement that our own interests emerge from the conversation we have with ourselves. Can we listen to both our deepest longings – balancing our needs for connection with our needs for agency, experimentation and freedom? Can we hold ourselves kindly when we slip up, and can we learn to listen to the deeper rhythms of our yearnings even when we are anxious?   In short, can we accept the whole of ourselves, both that which we love about ourselves and that which most gives us pain. Because it is only with such acceptance that we can choose our responses more consciously instead of defensively acting to minimize the inevitable difficult thoughts and emotions that arise whenever we are doing anything that matters.

We then move on to creating better conversations with others:  Conversations focused on shared purpose and identity. Can we step into their perspectives, finding that which we ultimately share in common, or at least making room for their needs because we recognise that in the end, humans are happiest when we are in harmony with each other?

But, as Garett Hardin rightly pointed out, it is not enough to rely upon individual conscience. To be sustainably prosocial, we need to build agreements that support sharing because we trust that others are also constrained to act honourably. So, the Prosocial conversation moves on to 8 core design principles, derived from the Nobel prize-winning work of Elinor Ostrom and generalised first by David Sloan Wilson in his work with Lin Ostrom, and then further in our testing and refinement of the Prosocial model.  I am going to present those core design principles as questions we might ask of any approach to enhancing cooperation, including cooperation in response to the coronavirus.

  1. What is our shared purpose? What else do we share in common?  If I know we are pulling in the same direction, and that you are like me, social identity theory tells us that I am much more likely to cooperate with you.
  2. How can we ensure everyone has their needs met fairly?  Can we recognise and speak our own needs? Can others do the same? And can we hold the intent to find the closest approximation to a win-win situation for all?
  3. How do we decide together, so that everyone who is affected has agency in the system?
  4. How can we see what others are doing, not so that we can control others, but so that we can trust that others are also acting in the collective interest?
  5. How can we encourage helpful behaviors and discourage unhelpful ones when we see them?
  6. How can we resolve conflicts in as timely a way as possible?

And then, if we are thinking about a discrete group that has relations with other groups, like our local neighbourhood mutual aid group, or our family, or school, shifting our gaze to the group as a whole and its interface with the system in which it operates:

  1. How can we protect the group from undue and excessive interference from outside, interference that disrupts it from addressing those earlier questions?
  2. And how can we ensure the group has relations with other groups that also address all these questions at the between-group level? So that groups of groups have shared purpose, distribute resources fairly, make decisions inclusively and so on.

These conversations about individual interests, collective interests, and the supporting agreements that we need to pursue those interests together, enable Prosocial to work at multiple levels, balancing and integrating individual and collective needs and interests by providing people both with a sense of shared purpose and also a sense of trust that they will not be exploited.

Let’s circle back and see how all this might help with just one of the tragedies we see unfolding in response to COVID-19. Imagine if our public discourse was able to acknowledge the desires we have for certainty, for caring for ourselves and our families, without descending into righteous indignation.  And imagine if we taught skills in noticing and holding all those parts of ourselves – both the better angels of our nature and that part that wants to protect ourselves.  Imagine if we diverted resources from trying to convince each other to consume more, to instead building the skills to have conversations with ourselves and with others that sought to integrate rather than oppose what is good for me, my family, my neighbourhood, my country and the planet.


To learn more about the Prosocial process, please see or purchase the book Prosocial: Using evolutionary science to build more cooperative, equitable and productive groups.

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1 Comment

  1. Anna Harrington on March 28, 2020 at 8:04 am

    great blog, so relevant. I think the time is so right for prosocial, provoked by Covid-19. Harshly, in one sense, Covid-19 has brought the reality of contentedness to being something that may be feared, but conversely it is also demanding we as individuals recognise our action potential giving us agency to implement with care for others

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