"Prosociality is a master variable. Those who are surrounded by helpful others develop multiple assets; those who are surrounded by indifferent or hostile others develop multiple liabilities.
- David Sloan Wilson, Evolutionary Anthropologist
Prosociality in behavioral science means the ability and motivation to behave in a way that benefits others. Prosociality, cooperation, group identity, communication, and learning from and with each other, are foundational skills and traits for our species, Homo sapiens.
Surveying the evidence, however, our genome requires a supportive social environment for prosocial behaviors to be fully expressed. This requirement is due to a built-in evolutionary process to “flex” our behavior to the situation, and allows for protective, selfish behaviors to be expressed as well. What's more, the required conditions for prosocial behavior have been endemic to most of human history as a function of our natural ecology; in large scale societies they require awareness and intentional planning.
Fortunately, 21st century science has begun to provide a new understanding of these conditions and how to increase our awareness and implementation of them, grounded in an evolutionary view of the human condition. Below we share evidence and research that inform our perspective on schools, followed by an introduction to Prosocial as a science and methodology. For a fuller discourse on our theory of learning and adaptation, we invite you to read more here.
Evidence Base & Research
Increased academic achievement
The Regents Academy
One year in a Prosocial-informed academy for at-risk 9th and 10th graders in Binghamton, New York not only led "students [to] outperform their comparison group in a randomized control design, but they performed on a par with the average high school student in Binghamton on state-mandated exams."
Increasing positive school culture
Policy recommendations based on human evolution and learning.
This study recommends six "interventions [that] can have infinite targets, for example,... [to] increase a supportive versus coercive environment, increase skills and well-being of parents and teachers, [and/or] can reduce the extent that students are streamed into different academic pathways...”
Increasing resilience to COVID-19 impacts on mental health
From a study in Italy during the spring of 2020.
"As predicted, results showed that... global psychological flexibility and four of its sub-processes (self-as context, defusion, values, committed action), mitigated the detrimental impacts of COVID-19 risk factors on mental health."
Decreased bullying in schools
Meaningful Roles Intervention
A 2015 study on Meaningful Roles, an evolutionary based anti-bullying intervention, showed reductions in student fighting, injury, absences, and detention following implementation.
Increased social belonging
A Stanford University study on social belonging intervention and outcomes in adulthood
A randomized, one-hour intervention for freshmen at Stanford University cut the grade deficit at graduation for African Americans in half; the percent of African Americans in the top 25 percent of their class tripled. The health deficit between African Americans and European Americans, measured by self-reported feelings of health and visits to a doctor’s office, was eliminated entirely.
Increased academic performance:
A study on 1,175 children and their families from Bradford, England
A study on students from low income neighborhoods in the UK suggests that fostering prosociality and the development of helping behaviors may mitigate academic risk across early childhood
A comparison between ACT and a textbook classroom approach to decreasing prejudice
Results of this pilot study indicate that acceptance and commitment therapy [ACT] intervention was effective in increasing positive behavioral intention, which was found to be associated with decreased believability of prejudicial thoughts.
Reduced problem behaviors
Good Behavior Game
In a study in Baltimore City, the Good Behavior Game was implemented to foster and encourage prosocial behavior, and resulted in a 48% reduction in the use of school-based services for problems with behavior, emotions, or drugs or alcohol for young adults.
THE SCIENCE OF PROSOCIAL
Contextual Behavioral Science
Contextual Behavioral Science ("CBS") is an evolutionary theory of behavior, 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 coordinated learning and action is changing the way we relate to our own experiences and to those of others.
Political Science and Economics
Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom (Economics, 2009) was a political scientist who showed that groups were capable of avoiding the "tragedy of the commons" — but only if they possess certain core design principles ("CDP").
Prosocial co-founder David Sloan Wilson collaborated with Ostrom and her postdoctoral associate, Michael Cox, to show that the CDP apply to all human affairs.
Modern evolutionary theory integrates CBS, political science & economics, and other branches of science.
Most people associate the word evolution with genetic evolution, but we rely on social evolution to navigate the world both as a group and as an individual. Unmanaged, this may lead to outcomes that benefit me but not you, us but not them, or all of us now at the expense of future generations.
A brief perspective on school and our working theory of learning and adaptation.
A brief perspective on school
School communities are complex, multi-group ecosystems of diverse human beings, each with their own diverse values, who need to come together to make a school function well for all. The general premise of schools is the transfer of knowledge and lived experience between generations, made accessible through shared language, history and a curricula of documented findings about the world.
Each generation may add to, modify or re-direct this body of wisdom for their own children. This process of cultural evolution presumes to ensure that our children are as well-adapted as we are.
Starting approximately 100,000 years ago, this evolution can be seen to speed up exponentially. Our species' departure from Africa began at this time, soon propelling a diverse range of settlements on almost every continent and in every climatic zone. This was followed by the ability to grow food (12,000 y.a.), the advent of writing (5,500 y.a.), the industrial revolution (250 y.a.) and, in the blink of an eye, the digital revolution that we are experiencing today (40 y.a.). Together these innovations have dramatically altered the repertoire of behaviors expressed by homo sapiens.
We may point out that against this rate of change, formal education has been exceedingly rare. It began first for elites (approx. 3,000 y.a.) and only recently became available for the general public (starting around 150 y.a.).
As we examine the function of schools in this context, we can also add the observation that cultural evolution may not take us where we want to go. After all, evolution is largely blind. The effects of the Western diet have been increasingly detrimental, for instance. The same case is being made for the impact of social media on childhood development.
As an outlier, in the United States the group with the highest happiness quotient - toward the national ideal of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" - are the Amish, both admired and disdained for their thriving pre-industrial, agrarian lifestyle. The Amish typically attend school through 8th grade.
How do we observe this history to know where we came from, where we are headed, and how we may engender our preferred future?
It may not be intuitive. As Ciarrochi et al. elaborate in Contextual Positive Psychology: Policy Recommendations for Implementing Positive Psychology into Schools, "placing a high value on feeling happy is associated with lower emotional well-being, higher depression, and greater loneliness (Mauss et al., 2011, 2012)."
In addition they note, "there is a powerful agenda... that misconceives the causes of behavior as comprising exclusively internal characteristics such as positive affect, optimism, and character. [This is based on] a common tendency for people to overestimate causes as residing within the individual and underestimate the power of context...(Jones and Harris, 1967)."
Prosocial as a theory
Never has the future been less clear, both in the face of accelerated cultural change mentioned above, and in the face of accelerated global instability due to disease transmission, climate change and on-going, systemic inequality at once racial, social and economic.
In this light, we seek to apply evolutionary theory twice over: first, to understand the genetically evolved behavioral mechanisms that make cultural evolution possible; and second, to understand the diversity of forms that can result from cultural evolution to help us rapidly, equitably and safely set a course for universal human well-being.
The abundance of evidence leads us to conclude, given our deep history as a species (with about seven million years of human evolution since our last common ancestor with chimpanzees) that human behavior genetically evolved to be rigidly flexible. In other words, we have the genetic capacity for a broad repertoire of behaviors but our expressed behaviors for any given situation are highly contingent on the way we relate to our own experiences and to those of others in the group.
For instance, imagine if the survival and well-being of individuals depended on the group’s capacity to solve problems and resolve external threats. In this environment, individual cooperative behaviors arise as an extremely successful, adaptive strategy.
We theorize that such conditions are how cooperative behaviors become embedded in our genes and significantly influence human behavior today. These conditions were enjoyed by our ancestors as a prerogative of small group life: it was largely punitive to be a selfish member of the fire circle when everyone could easily monitor your behavior, and upon whom you directly relied on for survival.
Still there is enough variability in our social success that our ancestors also had to protect themselves from an indifferent, incompetent, or even hostile group. This variability we theorize led to an equally adaptive strategy to act selfishly, for oneself, or to benefit one’s family for the larger group, or to benefit all of us now, even at the expense of future generations. Which strategy we pursue - cooperative or competitive - is often a portrait of our own experiences and of the interactions between others in our group.
The good news is that research over the past few decades has come to the conclusion that we humans remain extremely collaborative and prosocial. By benefiting the group, our group is able to thrive and benefit its members. It's a win-win dynamic supported by Darwinian evolutionary theory.
Yet, because of our deep evolutionary past, we also remain “keyed” to social context to determine whether we act prosocially or selfishly from moment to moment. We are always code-switching, depending on the rules in force around us.
This rigid dimension to our behavior has stunning consequences. First, consistent with Darwinian evolution, consider that prosocial behaviors are a competitive advantage to groups and their individual members, across the entire biological world. Second, in the context of skyrocketing population size and social complexity, consider that the social conditions we need to act prosocially have become increasingly weak since the dawn of civilization.
As a result, almost all human recorded history has accepted behavioral inflexibility as a picture of human nature: the self-serving choices that manifest as “the tragedy of the commons”. A cursory look at our current health commons, economic commons, educational commons, political commons and climate commons provides an abject lesson. It is a story of human nature that has become its own myth: that if we maximize our personal reward, a public benefit will be created.
Prosocial as a behavior vs methodology
Fortunately, 21st century science has begun to provide a new understanding of behavioral flexibility grounded in an evolutionary view of the human condition. This is also the story of Prosocial, beginning with Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom (Economics, 2009).
Lin was a political scientist that showed that groups are capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons when they demonstrate, consciously or unconsciously, a set of eight core design principles ("CDPs"). Prosocial World co-founder and evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson collaborated with Ostrom and her postdoctoral associate, Michael Cox, to identify the CDPs as a coherent set of social conditions that support prosociality and continue to apply to all human affairs where collaboration is needed to achieve common goals.
Following additional applied research, in 2017 Prosocial World began to use the evidence-based methodologies of contextual behavioral science (“CBS”) to develop a training course to help groups gain an awareness of the CDPs, and to adopt and implement them to meet their particular needs and context. What’s more we theorize that mastery over such trait based evolution is fully within our human nature and our genetic evolutionary past, present and future. We are born with the capacity for culture making.
The significance for youth and their communities is consistent with a human right to education: youth deserve to know how cooperation will prepare them to thrive, especially in contrast to the myth that the pursuit of individual self-interest will result in a common benefit. The latter notion simply breaks down in the real-world, trending toward unprecedented loss of opportunity, biodiversity, and resilience. This is significant because youth will gain the skills to increase their own behavioral flexibility while serving as catalysts to do the same in their schools and communities.
In particular, schools, colleges and universities represent an educational commons where learning to be flexible or inflexible determines our capacity for change in each of the other commons: social, economic and planetary. This critical transfer is also known as the transfer of learning.
We therefore use the evidence informed methodologies of CBS like ACT and DNA-V to help all stakeholders in the school community learn the CDP under a unified evolutionary framework. These tools encourage small groups to foster the conditions for behavioral flexibility, to interact well, to form emerging solutions to meet their common aims, to resolve acute and chronic problems, and to foster how their group interacts well with other groups. As a global networked improvement community, together we can change the way we change at planetary scale.
Same teachers, same students, learning better, together
In true Prosocial fashion, the authors of the Regents Academy program, featured in our evidence base, "distinguish between the functional design of a program and the implementation of the design in a real-world situation. Every design feature, such as creating a group identity, can be implemented in a number of ways, and the implementation that works best often depends upon local circumstances."
They note that "[as in the case of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom's work]... she was able to predict performance outcomes in an analysis based on the presence or absence of design features."
This is why Prosocial has high fidelity to its design principles, and high integrity and autonomy for the people who choose to implement them in any number of ways. In other words, this is not about changing who is learning. The same teachers and the same students can learn better together by changing how they learn together. Prosocial accomplished this by harmonizing an awareness of our internal experiences, the quality of our relationships, and the cultural norms we create and agree on into a flexible framework.
For comparison sake, the Regents Academy documented how they implemented the core design principles in this summative chart.
In summary, given an evolutionary view, the past belongs to the well-adapted; the future belongs to the adaptive. We hope you will join us.
THE SCIENCE OF PROSOCIAL
Our world is a complex, continuously evolving system. What are the key elements of the system? How do they interact at different levels of organization? What are the uniquely elaborated capacities for human cultural evolution that will move us away from or towards social, economic and environmental wellbeing?
Three (3) Scientific Roots
As we articulate in our book, "Prosocial", the Prosocial process emerges from three foundational scientific roots:
(1) The evolutionary science of complex adaptive systems;
(2) The social science of behavior change;
(3) The political and economic science of collective action.
Eight (8) Core Design Principles
(1) Strong group identity and understanding of purpose.
(2) Equitable distribution of costs and benefits.
(3) Fair and inclusive decision-making.
(4) Monitoring agreed-upon behaviors.
(5) Graduated responses to both breaches of, and alignment with, agreed-upon behaviors.
(6) Fast and fair conflict resolution.
(7) Authority to self-govern.
(8) Applying 1-7 in relations with other groups.