Prosocial for Human Happiness

This is a presentation by Paul Atkins to the World Happiness Festival March 18 2020. An edited transcript of the presentation follows the video.



Let’s begin with the assertion that our wellbeing is ultimately 100% determined by the quality of the relationships we have.

We are social beings

Every aspect of our being is social. Our emotions are socially constructed, our health and longevity are dependant on the quality of the relationships we have and to the degree that we are of service to those relationships. Our meaning in life is ultimately founded in the relationships we have and our performance in any sphere of work or pleasure are similarly.

This includes language.

Language has emerged from cooperation but has, in turn, put our capacity to cooperate into hyperdrive through our ability to tell stories. If you really think about how institutions nationally and globally cooperate, it is through this ability to tell stories. To be able to describe what has been, what is, and what could be, shows us that our language gives us great possibility. We’ve constructed certain stories that determine the degree to which we are cooperative and we can reconstruct those stories to be more effective. Yet, we seem to struggle with national and international problems of environmental degradation and inequity.

And of course, even responding to pandemics.

Rise of Uncertainty

During the rise of the coronavirus, we have seen some strange stories coming from the media in relation to the bulk purchases of toilet paper. There is one image in particular where there is a woman with a trolley full of toilet paper. This woman looks as if she is defending this trolley while the woman next to her seems to be pleading for just one packet as there may not have been any left on the shelf. While looking at this image it can be extremely easy to jump to the conclusion that the woman with the trolley full of toilet paper is bad or selfish in some way. But it’s helpful to imagine that this woman has a large family. She might be thinking that this crisis will go on for weeks and weeks. When we imagine that all she is trying to do is protect her family, we start to soften and realise the possible context that may be bringing out this particular form of behaviour.

Evolutionary Mismatch

Context drives our behaviour and the degree to which we are able to be prosocial. Right now, we are in a state of what’s called “Evolutionary Mismatch”. Humans evolved from living in small groups where we knew one another intimately. Groups where we could rely on our personal reputation we could use to smooth the wheels of cooperation. Of course, now we live in a world of international trade and flights that can spread a pandemic in a matter of hours. This means we absolutely cannot rely on the thinking and the feelings that got us to this point. We are extraordinarily cooperative, but we are also now facing new challenges that the human species has never faced before.

An important point to make is that evolution doesn’t always take us to where we want to go. We think of evolution as the basic process of variation, selection and retention of genes. But we should see it as the process of variation, selection and retention of behaviours. Unfortunately, this means that evolution can veer us off track and this selection can lead us to global war under certain conditions. Another unfortunate evolutionary selection narrative has been greed over good which can lead us to the thinking of humans as predominantly selfish beings. It can be seen as human nature to meet your own needs at the expense of others, and indeed it’s almost foolish to think of a more cooperative world. From the rise of economics and policy circles over the last 60 years, selfishness is not only natural but can be seen as desirable. What this has led to overtime is the dismemberment of critical public institutions supporting the public good and the destruction of the very habitat of which we have evolved from and in which we thrived.

But even conditions that cause a species to thrive in terms of sheer numbers can lead to a reduction in its well-being. Just think of the fate of chickens, if you like. There are a lot more chickens on the planet now than they were 50 or 100 years ago, but their average state of well-being is vastly worse than it was. So evolution unmanaged is a process that can take us where we don’t want to go and it doesn’t necessarily lead to good.

Another key thing we need to understand if we’re going to understand Prosocial is that evolution occurs at multiple levels. What’s good for the individual isn’t always good for the group. Or, what’s good for one group may not be good for the whole society. If you look at U.S. foreign policy at the moment, it’s largely geared around “America first” and may not be good for the planet or indeed other countries.

The Prosocial Way

What is needed to integrate what we really need as a method for integrating self-interest with collective interest? To do that we need to be able to influence the selection context at different levels – at the level of individuals working in teams, but also at the level of groups of groups. We need to create the conditions for selecting kindness and consideration and also for building kind and considerate organisations and governments.

Fortunately, there’s a long history of really good science in this area and we’ve got plenty to draw on in the design of Prosocial. A paper written by Garrett Hardin in 1968 had a huge influence on the view of human beings as inherently selfish, and outlines what Hardin called “the tragedy of the commons”. This is essentially the idea that if you have an unregulated commons of grasslands and you have herders around that grassland, they’ll put as many cattle as they can on to maximise their own returns, to the point where ultimately the grass will be eaten and nobody will be able to graze there. And that’s what Hardin referred to as “the tragedy of the commons”. Later in his life, he made some interesting qualifications to this idea. He noted that it’s an unmanaged commons and it’s also the context of unlimited desires. But those are socio-psychological statements, we don’t have to have unmanaged commons and we don’t have to have unlimited desires.

Create the Right Conditions

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel prize for her work exploring the tragedy of the commons. In this work, she essentially showed that if you create the right conditions, human beings can create agreements to cooperatively manage common core resources for dozens, hundreds, even thousands of years, therefore avoiding the tragedy of the commons. Her careful research convincingly demonstrated that we get what we select for, that if we make the effort to communicate with one another and create agreements that have eight-core design principles, we can create a robust and effective cooperation.

Before Elinor Ostrum sadly passed away in 2012, she worked with David Sloan Wilson, founder of Prosocial, to generalise these core design principles from the commons to all sorts of groups. Prosocial is our attempt to create a practical system for applying these generalised design principles to all kinds of situations of cooperation, whether it be in responding to a virus or improving cooperation in a team.

Prosocial is Four Things

Pro-Social is four things. It’s a perspective on the world, it’s a research effort, a community of practice and a practical process. If we wish to improve cooperation at scale, we need tools that work at multiple levels of cultural selection, individual groups and groups of groups. We need tools that create the contexts for cooperative behaviour to evolve in those different levels.

Another element of our thinking, and indeed Ostrum’s thinking, is that small groups and groups of small groups where people are empowered, where they know one another and where they can form local agreements about what really matters, are a key neglected element in organising human effort.

If you look at our response to most challenges of human cooperation, we tend to think in terms of just public and private top-down government, limited regulation and bottom-up markets. But there is another form of organising which is sweeping the world with the rise of the Internet. And that is small groups and communities that care about a particular issue and are organising around it. In a sense, this is a return to an earlier age where the dominance of our relationships was in small connected groups.

Another key part of our effort at Prosocial is that the quality of our awareness matters. This is not about rules and regulations, but rather about how we bring our awareness of the world to the group. This awareness allows us to notice our own internal functioning, to notice the functioning of others and to integrate individual and collective action in order to select behaviours that work for the good of the group.

Prosocial as a Community of Practice

In addition to supporting research through tools and advice to researchers around the world, Prosocial is a community of practice. In attracting groups from across a range of different areas (including government agencies, private corporations, schools, local and national health care organisations and environmental networks), we can enhance human cooperation for the key problems we face.

One lovely story from our community relates to the work of Beate Ebert and Hannah Bockarie around the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone. This work is quite instructive in looking at how these issues are not exclusively technical problems of providing certain forms of health treatment but are very much human cooperative problems.

In this context, changing behaviours was necessary so that people buried their dead more quickly and didn’t engage in the traditional practices of washing, dressing and kissing the dead, potentially contributing to the spread of Ebola. However, these traditional practices were important for the identity of communities and the expression of their love and respect for those who had died.

Beate, Hannah and their colleagues from an organisation called Commit an Act worked with the community to develop an alternative narrative and to integrate individual interests in families with the collective need of the community. They came up with the wonderful solution to use a banana trunk as a proxy for the dead body and were then able to wash, kiss and bury banana trunks instead of bodies, which had a significant  impact upon the spread of the disease in the local area. This solution could only have emerged through working with the community and building agreements about how they wanted to cooperate to meet the needs of the whole.

Prosocial as a Process

Prosocial has taken five key tools and brought them together in a flexible framework that can be used in any order to approach different contexts. There is the Individual Acceptance and Commitment Training Matrix and the Collective Acceptance and Commitment Training Matrix – these are both tools that help people map their interests, as well as what is going on in their minds, in order to understand how that is related to actual behaviour, which is what’s going to make a difference in the world of cooperation. Other Prosocial tools are the Core Design Principles, Goal Setting in Action Learning and Research Tools.

A typical process for Prosocial may involve going into an organisation (like a school or community) and talking about the core design principles. From there, we may work on developing a sense of shared identity and purpose.  We might use personal matrix to explore the personal implications of that purpose.  We would then typically work on the other core design principles to work out how can to implement a good solution, before moving through a process of goal setting and action learning. This process can be mixed and matched so that individual interests are explored first.

Core Design Principles

We have adapted Ostrom’s core design principles to be more applicable to all groups and groups of groups. Essentially this is a set of pointers to the key conditions needed in order for a group to thrive. The most important condition is some sense of shared purpose, a common agenda, and a sense of shared identity.

Other principles that are really key in this process are equity and fair distribution of costs and benefits. It’s very well known that groups that have a large degree of inequity are highly likely to be more dysfunctional.

There is an enormous amount of evidence coming from meta analysis of tens of thousands of participants for every single one of these principles. However, if you look at any group that you belong to and ask yourself, “Is it doing all of these things?”, you’ll find that it probably is not. This is in part because behaviour in groups is not always selected for the common good but for the good of the leader or certain individuals within it.

The third principle is that people who were affected by decision making in the group need to be involved in the making of it. This isn’t a rigid principle – it’s sometimes the case that we’re happy to delegate decision-making power to a leader in exchange for protection and order, and that can sometimes work. But generally speaking, to the extent that we are influenced by decisions we have no control over, we end up with situations where selfishness can thrive and collective good can be undermined.

These principles all function to try to shift the balance from individual interest to collective interest so that collectively helpful behaviours are being selected for. Another absolutely core principle that needs to be in place for all groups is transparency of behaviour. We need to be able to see other people’s behaviours, otherwise corruption can thrive. It is also the case that in teams where it’s hard to notice when someone isn’t doing the right thing, it’s very difficult to do anything about it.

A fifth principle is that we need to have graduated responses to helpful and unhelpful behaviours. Essentially, when we see a behaviour that is unhelpful, we need sanctions for that behaviour. We need to be able to reduce the frequency of that behaviour. Abundant evidence has shown that groups with sanctions for misbehaving are much more likely to be cooperative than groups where misbehaviour goes unpunished. At the same time, we can’t just have punishment – we need to have rich reinforcement for helpful, collectively beneficial behaviours.

Conflict Resolution and Authority

When we’re trying to integrate individual and collective interests in groups, we need processes for fast, fair conflict resolution of individual differences. We also need the authority for the group to be able to manage these first six processes for itself. The principle of authority to self-governance refers to the fact that the group cannot have excessive interference from outside. A team in the public service, for instance, that has no control over its purpose and is unable to resolve conflicts for itself is not a funcitoning team but a group of people. If a group is going to pursue its shared identity and purpose, it needs to have the authority to make decisions and resolve conflict.

Prosocial is explicitly multi-level. The principles have been developed or adapted in a way that allows them to be applied at any level. For example, groups of groups need to have a shared identity and purpose. If one group or one organisation is going to co-operate with another, there needs to be equity between them. There needs to be inclusive decision making, transparency and so forth. All of the Prosocial principles apply at any level. They can apply to a marriage or even to competing parts of the individual.

When you have all these principles, you can work with groups in a really interesting way. You can ask them, for instance, how well is your team doing on each of these principles and how well is the base your team doing in its cooperation with other groups? So you can map a sort of multi-level idea of how well your group is working with these principles. We also have various survey tools that support our facilitators using Prosocial in better understanding how well the group is functioning.

Mapping Interests and Exploring Purpose

Prosocial is all about mapping collective interests on to individual interests and vice versa and integrating them across multiple levels. The tool that we use for exploring this was developed in the acceptance and commitment training literature by Kevin Polk and others. This tool is a way of dividing up experience and getting a little more conscious about our experience so that we can consciously select for the behaviours that are going to be for the collective good rather than reacting out of a place of selfishness or self-protection. All animals move toward what matters to them. It gives them pleasure and moves them away from what causes them pain. But humans are different in that we have this other dimension. We have language which gives us a mind, which allows us to construct stories. It’s really important to map the difference between how we’re thinking about a situation and what’s actually happening in the world.

An example of how this tool might work with a group could be in exploring its collective identity and purpose. In this instance we may ask a question like “It’s five years out from now and our group has been extraordinarily effective. What are we seeing? What have we achieved? How are we behaving?” We then come up with all sorts of answers to that. This is a way of articulating our purpose and our value – what really matters to us. Once we’ve got a map of our purpose and values, we can start to say, well, if we’re really living in line with that purpose, what would we be doing?

In this process, we also want to make space for the thoughts and feelings that might hook us and others and get in the way. This is key, because many change initiatives don’t cater for this. One example is from groups working together towards environmental sustainability. They were concerned potentially about losing autonomy and independence. The internal concerns within the group, like working in silos and ignoring other groups in the network, needed to be discussed. It is at this level that we can see that these defensive strategies actually weaken relationships and slow learning. From here we can ask the question of “What are we afraid of? What else can we do to remain compassionate and effective?” There are many ways of evoking potential answers to these questions, and we can then move on to setting goals and monitoring change over time.

Exploring what matters can be used at the level of the individual about any particular issue. For example, the individual can look at a promotion opportunity and explore what matters most to them, and what is getting in the way of them fully doing what they want to. Our behaviours are selected for depending on the degree to which they meet our needs and realise our purposes. Our purposes can be broad social purposes or more highly self-focused and self-centred.

The More Beautiful World That Our Hearts Know is Possible

All of the work of Prosocial is in the service of creating a more beautiful world. We need to use our phenomenal brains and our language capacity to bring the forces of evolution within our conscious control. We need to consciously evolve. And this involves changing the selection conditions for our behaviour so that we’re selecting caring for others, including other species, not selecting for greed, ignorance and fear. This begins with orienting ourselves towards our shared identities. We need to orient ourselves towards what we all care about as a species and create a sense of shared identity and purpose. And then we need to find ways we can all move together toward that if we’re going to increase net human happiness, which is our mission.

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