david sloan wilson (3)



A workshop in Binghamton, New York provides a proof of concept

For the last three years, PROSOCIAL’s development team has been holding workshops at the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) annual World Conference.  The workshop held last June in Seattle was the best yet, which shouldn’t be surprising, given that PROSOCIAL is well and truly launched and we could share some of the success stories that are featured on PROSOCIAL Magazine.

There is one problem with workshops held at annual conferences, however. No matter how well they succeed, the workshop participants go back to their respective homes, where it is difficult to keep up the momentum.

What would it be like to hold a PROSOCIAL workshop at a location where the participants don’t disperse? The organizers of the workshop could continue working with the participants. The first PROSOCIAL groups would be in the same area and could form the nucleus of a community of groups. Local elected officials, heads of agencies, and local philanthropic foundations could be present to learn about PROSOCIAL and provide top-down assistance to the groups that form in a bottom-up fashion.

That’s what I found myself thinking after returning from the ACBS conference in June.  With the help of a talented group of colleagues, I got right to work and organized a PROSOCIAL workshop in my hometown of Binghamton, New York, which took place a week ago as of this writing (August 17, 2016). It was a great success and serves as a proof of concept for what can be done at other locations. Here is a description of what we did, followed by suggestions for readers who want to organize workshops in their hometowns.

Laying the groundwork. As a professor at Binghamton University who is actively engaged in community affairs (go here for more), I was in a good position to organize a workshop at little expense. I could reserve a space at the University’s Downtown Center without charge and I had great staff support. If you aren’t starting out with these capacities, don’t lose heart! There are ways to acquire them, as I will describe in more detail below.

My local PROSOCIAL team. There is no point in holding a local workshop without a local team that has enough experience with PROSOCIAL to work with groups during the workshop and beyond. My team consisted primarily of my graduate students and recently minted PhD’s who are still in the area. They are highly trained in evolutionary science and the Core Design Principles part of PROSOCIAL but, like me, are self-taught for the contextual behavioral science and ACT part of PROSOCIAL. Also, most of us have relatively little experience working as facilitators of group processes. In short, you could call my local PROSOCIAL team a bit “green” (myself included!) but we still felt up for the job.

Bringing in a headliner. Although we felt capable of introducing the workshop participants to the Matrix, we decided that it would be even better to bring in a true expert and Benjamin “Benji” Schoendorff, who has written two books on the Matrix with Kevin Polk (1,2), graciously accepted our invitation at short notice. I had met Benji at the ACBS WorldCon in June and one of my graduate students, Ian MacDonald, had attended an ACT Boot Camp that included Benji as one of the instructors.  Now we could be sure that our workshop participants would learn about the ACT part of PROSOCIAL from the best! 

Getting the word out. Four weeks before the workshop, we put out a press release through Binghamton University with the title New workshop to teach ‘the science of working better together’ to Binghamton groups. We also sent out a blast of emails through our own social networks. The workshop was advertised as free of charge but with registration required. We also provided a sign-up for people who were interested but were unable to attend on that date.

So you want to throw a party. Does anyone want to come? I’m a bit on the shy side and whenever I organize an event I’m afraid that nobody will come and I’ll be blowing out the candles of my birthday cake all by myself. It was therefore thrilling when the registrations started to come in and we reached our capacity of 70 participants. Optimally, a PROSOCIAL workshop should attract three types of participants: 1) Members of groups that contemplate using PROSOCIAL; 2) Individuals who contemplate becoming facilitators of PROSOCIAL groups; and 3) Representatives of organizations in a position to support PROSOCIAL facilitators and groups. Our participants included all three types.  A diversity of groups was represented, including several campus groups, our local radio station, the Broome County Council of Churches, and neighborhood groups. Some of the prospective facilitators already had extensive experience working with groups. Representatives of organizations included the United Way of Broome County and a member of the office of our New York State Assembly woman.

Feedback, feedback, feedback. It is always good to gather feedback from workshop participants to learn about their backgrounds and expectations, which can also be used to set tone for the workshop. Here is a sample of comments that we received from an online survey given before the start of the workshop, in reply to the questions “What is your reason for attending?”  and “What matters to you?” 

“I work in three different groups, with leadership responsibilities in all of them. I want to learn ways to help these groups work better together and be able to accomplish some new goals without upsetting people. Two of the groups do not have a lot of involvement from members and I would like to change this.”

“I would love to learn how to be better at this and why some approaches work and some don’t.”

“I will be chairing a committee and will be a member of several others. I will also be teaching workshops that are extensively group work and discussion based, requiring strong facilitation skills. I would like to develop my ability to work on both a team of peers and lead a team of students.”

“[I am] Interested in learning new techniques to continue to strengthen working relationships within my organization.”

“To learn the science around working in a group, networking, and to better work with my colleagues.”

“While individual choice and action plays an important role in one’s ability to contribute to community, I believe policy and context-framing decisions and actions shaping the ecological contexts within which people develop, are more fundamental to community health and how well individuals care for, support each other and build community.”

“I am interested in learning about group interactions in order to improve our interactions as we work toward accreditation status. I am also hoping to gain a better understanding of our group’s fit in Binghamton and how to better work as a smaller group within larger entities.”

“I’m looking for ways to sharpen my abilities to collaborate with partner offices and agencies.”

“I’d like to learn from people who have thought a lot about teamwork if there are predictable tendencies and how to manage or diffuse situations that could become roadblocks. I also have the question of how to motivate and work with people not usually drawn to teams, and how to foster distributed responsibility so there aren’t laggards and hangers on.”

“To learn how to work better in a group, and to bring groups together when working on projects.”

“I would like to know how to best bring individuals together who are used to being ‘in their own heads’. I am also interested in learning how to maintain a team as they are faced with repeated change.”

“I often describe our team as a group of highly productive, skilled, and talented individuals who could work together far better than we do. We figure out how to work around one another because of the challenges we have work with one another.”

“I’m hoping to…learn more about group psychology and behavior. (I’m secretly obsessed with behavioral economics and social cognition.)”

“To learn how to work more effectively with my team to reach our goals.”

“Our organization is broken up into several units, each with its own agenda. There seems to be an “us versus them” mentality that presents itself in nearly all settings. It would be nice to learn how we can work collectively as a group to benefit our overall organization, as well as the clients, constituents, and stakeholders we serve.”

“Looking for some break through ideas and guidelines to help make students more excited about working in groups and overcome resistance to group work; also looking for ideas on how to counter social loafing in groups, encourage more equitable participation and contributions within a group.”

“I am interested in creating an environment that will encourage participation, teamwork, and satisfaction for our staff.” 

“I want to be able to make a difference and have my voice be heard. I want to be able to bring people together and learn how to overcome obstacles.”

“We would like more involvement, but are not sure how to get it. I want to be able to bring our group together to accomplish the goals we all decide on.”

“Listening, finding a common ground and allowing others to advocate for themselves." 

“I like to be helping others, I need to feel valued, I want to contribute to something larger than myself.”

“Unity and integrity when working within a group. My goal for this workshop is create greater unity and trust within our group. This will assist in moving projects along and allow for creativity on an organizational level.”

These comments were displayed in a rotating Powerpoint presentation on the screen as the workshop participants entered the room. Not only did this set the tone for the workshop, but it also signaled that the workshop organizers were good listeners and not just talkers. 

The physical layout. The workshop was held in a large room that divided the participants into seven groups, with each group sitting around a table (actually, several tables on wheels that had been pushed together to provide plenty of room for each group). Participants were assigned to their tables based on information that we had received from our pre-workshop survey, which allowed us to group them by common interest as much as possible. The tables and chairs were positioned in a way that everyone could face the front of the room for portions of the workshop that involved a speaker addressing everyone, in addition to the portions of the workshop that involved working as a smaller group.  A table with nametags and a folder of material was positioned near the entrance of the room and a book table was positioned along the side. Light refreshments were served in an atrium outside the room. The local PROSOCIAL team greeted the participants as they entered and guided them to their tables.

Organization of the workshop. The three-hour workshop was organized in much the same way as the one held at the ACBS WorldCon in June. I began with a broad introduction that concluded with a description of some successful applications, using material available on PROSOCIAL magazine (right-click here and save-as to get the Powerpoint slides). Then Benji introduced the Matrix and took the whole room through an “individual spin”. After a ten-minute break, each of the seven groups was guided by a member of the PROSOCIAL team through a “group spin” of the Matrix with Benji circulating around the room, stressing the metaphor of groups as single organisms.

Then I led the whole room through a discussion of the design principles and the formation of short-term actionable goals. The workshop concluded in time for the participants to complete a short exit survey. Afterward, the participants were invited to join Benji and the PROSOCIAL team at a brew pub a few blocks away to socialize and unwind. This social opportunity was also announced beforehand so participants could include it in their schedule planning. 

How did they like it?  Feedback collected after the workshop included the short exit survey and a longer online survey. Here is a breakdown of responses to the question “Did the workshop meet your expectations?”




And here are verbal responses to the question “What were your take-aways from this event?”

The design principles remind me of permaculture design principles and how by following simple guidelines for living we can thrive happily, effectively and with more time for the important things. “Rules” can be positively framed.

Importance of recognizing “away” behaviors and planning for “toward” behaviors in service of stated goals.

Focus on group cohesion in setting goals and identifying actions that move us towards or away.

Importance of openly discussing core purpose as a group.

Moving towards/away from goals. Recognizing the movement when that shift happens.

How I might adjust my thinking and behavior to be a more effective group member.

I like the matrix and plan to use it. It was interesting to hear what organizations use this process.

There are better and more effective ways to approach working with groups of people; find common ground in order to advance mission and purpose.

Valuable to discuss group structure and goals

List of design principles is a good tool to use with our group as a start

We as a group are doing well but could have cohesiveness to make our purpose be more effective and feel like all have a significant role in achieving the success. It’s not just a job mentality- re-evaluate to help it feel more meaningful for all employees.

I enjoyed reflecting on my actions (pos & neg) that add or remove/detract from group.

Importance of group dynamics and common goals

The need to come up with a purpose first and work from there.

This is easier to theorize than implement.

Core design principles are valuable and used widely. ProSocial has good potential.

How to use the principles

Focus on common goals Learn to recognize “away moves” Execute w/ timeline, accountability and measurement

ACT and CDP – implementable and effective.

How core design principles play a huge role in the efficacy of a group and with a few failing principles how the group can falter.

That we have a lot of work to do but there is a process

1) Mission statement importance 2) I’d like to learn more about the former Regents Academy [an earlier local projects that made use of the Core Design Principles] 3) Maxtrix can give group direction

 I enjoyed learning how to begin the communication process, how to break the purpose down, and how to identify those behaviors that take away from the group purpose.

Groups are complicated because they consist of individuals with different needs – getting to a point of agreement is crucial.

The importance of understanding group dynamics. – the value that comes from organizing group’s ideas. – always work with flexibility in mind.

Knowledge for group and community work and dynamics.

Important concepts for me: Actions/thoughts can move toward and away from our goals/desired outcome. 

Bringing those to consciousness is first step. In-group behaviours vs outside evidence of symptoms of dynamic of our group

What others perceive your group to be.

This will benefit our school of nursing and group process/theory!

Finding out what’s wrong is easy. It’s fixing individuals (self-included) that is difficult. 

Improving group dynamics is possible with effort and buy-in from group members 

Consider things that take us away from moving forward 

Working as a group, to establish expectations, goals, etc.

I can see how I can employ the matrix in my classes – especially as a part of the case studies’ analysis by student teams. 2) It was very interesting and stimulating to learn about Prosociality and the corresponding research. 3) I met new people – some I knew from before and some were new, 4) Our facilitator – Rick – was great. 5) I got some possible venues to think about refining my own research.

The matrix and the design principles.

Kind of like leading a horse to water… but can you make it drink?

How to come to clear action steps from any common goal 

It is interesting—and gratifying—that the participants found value in both of the major components of PROSOCIAL–the part that teaches psychological flexibility and the part that teaches the Core Design Principles—along with the end result of deriving short term actionable goals. 

What happens next? In my opinion, with the help of one “headliner” from out of town, my local PROSOCIAL team was able to stage a workshop that was as successful as the one staged at ACBS WorldCon in June.  The real proof of concept for holding local workshops, however, will involve what takes place after the workshop. Here is what we plan to do.

Immediately start working with groups. Several participants contacted us right after the workshop to say that they wanted to go through the full process with their groups. We will begin working with these groups and follow up with the other participants. I have funds to offer facilitation services free of charge for a limited number of groups and will discuss funding issues in more detail below.Start training more facilitators. It is highly gratifying to me that people who are already expert at working with groups find added value in PROSOCIAL—such as Robert Styles, whose outstanding work with an Australian government agency is featured in PROSOCIAL Magazine (1,2). This was also the case for experienced group consultants who attended the Binghamton workshop and reported being eager to incorporate PROSOCIAL into their practices.  Widespread implementation of PROSOCIAL in the Binghamton area will require growing the number of facilitators in addition to growing the number of groups.Add a “top down” facilitation process to the “bottom up” group formation process. Elected officials such as our New York State Assemblywoman and organizations such as the United Way of Broome County are in a position to assist in the creation and support of PROSOCIAL groups in numerous ways. Once they appreciate that PROSOCIAL can increase the efficacy of nearly any group and can also lead to more effective governance at a larger scale (e.g., interactions among groups), then it is very much in line with their missions to offer support.Spread the word with additional workshops and presentations to single organizations. Additional presentations will be easy and nearly cost-free, since there are no travel costs—yet another advantage of adopting a place-based approach to implementing PROSOCIAL.

Assuming that groups have a positive experience, then we expect PROSOCIAL to “sell itself” to other groups. Optimistically, our main challenge will be to keep up with demand. In my dreams I imagine PROSOCIAL groups multiplying in the Binghamton area like bacteria in a petri dish: 1,2,4,8,16,32,64… 

Can It Be Done Elsewhere? My team had some special advantages that made it possible to stage a workshop quickly and at low cost, but there was nothing unique about our situation and some other localities are likely to have much greater advantages than Binghamton.  It might cost more to stage the event, but a registration fee can be charged or perhaps sponsoring organizations can cover the costs. A national philanthropic organization with local branches, such as the United Way, or private foundations that are dedicated to making a difference in a given locality (every city has them) are naturals for helping to stage a place-based PROSOCIAL workshop and the subsequent development of PROSOCIAL groups.

Work might be required to develop a local team of PROSOCIAL facilitators, but this is quite easy to accomplish, especially when starting with people who are already experienced at working with groups. The global PROSOCIAL development team is in the process of creating training materials for facilitators. People who already have training in ACT or other forms of Contextual Behavioral Science will find it especially easy to become PROSOCIAL facilitators. Any city with a local branch of ACBS is a natural for staging a PROSOCIAL workshop.

In fact, what’s really needed for PROSOCIAL is something that has already been developed for ACT—a worldwide society of practitioners with training events that have been highly refined with practice and can be staged at any location. If this global infrastructure were in place for PROSOCIAL, then any group that wanted to introduce PROSOCIAL to their area would merely need to schedule a training event and their main remaining task would be to help invite people to the party. 

Where next? I have already started to organize a PROSOCIAL workshop in Oslo, Norway, where the Evolution Institute has developed a rich social network over the past three years. I will be interested to see how PROSOCIAL is received and how fast it spreads in a country with a strong and nurturing government, compared to the United States, where the very word “government” has become a pejorative. Bainbridge Island, located a short ferry ride from Seattle, might become the third location, just because some members of the global PROSOCIAL development team reside there and want to introduce their friends and neighbors to what they are working hard to develop worldwide, as I did for my hometown. The global development team stands ready to assist groups at any locality that wants to stage a PROSOCIAL workshop, with the understanding that we might need to build our own capacity to keep up with demand. A place-based workshop might not be the only way to grow PROSOCIAL, but it might be one of the very best ways.

Read more…


PROSOCIAL is founded in large part on the work of Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist by training who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009. I met Lin (as she insisted everyone should call her) at a workshop in 2009, just a few months before she received the prize, and we worked together until her death in 2012. A partner in our collaboration was Michael Cox, who received his PhD with Lin and worked with her as a postdoctoral associate before accepting a faculty position in the Environmental Studies Program at Dartmouth College.

Michael is prominent among those extending Lin’s legacy and was the inaugural recipient of the Elinor Ostrom Award on Collective Governance of the Commons in 2016. He is the perfect person to discuss how PROSOCIAL’s “Core Design Principles (CDP) Approach” is being applied elsewhere.

DSW: Greetings, Michael, and welcome to PROSOCIAL Magazine. It’s a pleasure to interact with you again.

MC: Thank you David for setting this up. I am excited to talk about the “Core Design Principles” as you call them.

DSW: Always self-effacing, Lin insisted that they should NOT be called “The Ostrom Principles”. The announcement of your award on Dartmouth’s website says a little about how you became involved with Lin and what you are up to at Dartmouth. Let’s get right to a discussion of the Core Design Principles. Tell our readers how Lin derived them and how you and others had expanded upon her work at the time that I began working with you. 

MC: It’s difficult to authoritatively describe how Lin derived the design principles, but I have impressions. More than anything I remember Lin talking about trying to “make sense” of the patterns she was seeing in a set of cases of community-based natural resource management. She was looking at cases of success and failure, although the design principles are most commonly seen as conditions for success, and that is how she introduced them. I do remember Lin telling me about going for walks as she struggled to find a pattern among the successful and unsuccessful cases. I suppose someone could criticize this effort for not being very reproducible, which is something we want in science. But maybe it is the case that many novel and importantly innovative efforts are not reproducible, and what is needed is an unpredictable stroke of intuition or intellectual creativity to make progress.

DSW: Did she eventually do a statistical analysis, based on numerical codings of the case studies, or was her analysis entirely descriptive?

MC: To my knowledge Lin did not do a statistical analysis in producing or testing the design principles. In Governing the Commons, the book in which she introduced them, there are 14 cases that she examines. So this would not be enough for any conventional type of statistical analysis. The commons project that she headed, and to some extent led to her writing that book, did involve several statistical analyses, I believe mostly led by her students at the time. So I would say that her analysis was not statistical, but I would also not call it entirely descriptive, as she was making non-correlational comparisons between the success and failures and making causal inferences based on the patterns she found.

DSW: I’m not disparaging this style of analysis at all. On the contrary, it is close to the way that evolutionary research takes place in the biological sciences, starting with a foundation of natural history information that is largely descriptive, which then gets refined by more quantitative methods. Now let’s focus on how others have built on her work.

MC: Moving forward from what Lin has done has required that we continue to conduct fieldwork-based, empirical social science to better understand the conditions that facilitate or frustrate effective commons management. I have worked on community-based irrigation systems for several years, and recently have begun to look at such systems in the Dominican Republic, along with some community-based fisheries here. I think this experience and approach to commons science is important. It humbles you as an institutional “expert”, someone that other people look to for answers to management and governance problems. But the challenge is that real-world systems are very complex and patterns can be difficult to detect, and that, even if we know that we want to get from A to B (where B is say the presence of the core design principles), getting there can be very difficult. Lin often talked about the importance of understanding institutional change, and to me it means understanding just this type of process. 

To complement this fieldwork-focused research we need theoretical development, which several of us have been working on in a project known as the Social-ecological systems meta-analysis database (SESMAD) project (https://sesmad.dartmouth.edu/), where we have formalized theories of commons governance in a shared database. This is, as far as I know, the first attempt at creating a repository of theoretical knowledge of commons governance. 

DSW: Your point about getting from A to B is taken very seriously by PROSOCIAL, which works on increasing psychological and organizational flexibility in addition to implementing the Core Design Principles. Next, tell us about Lin’s outsider status. As I understand it, not only was she largely unknown among economists when she received the prize, but she represented a minority school of thought within political science and wasn’t even well recognized by her university. Is that correct? 

MC: Well, I would say that Lin was well known in the discipline of political science by then, having served as the president of the American Political Science Association at one point. It is certainly true that she was not well known in the discipline of economics before she won the prize. I think her work is probably unfamiliar to most economists, as it is mostly qualitative. Lin collaborative with people who did quantitative work, but it wasn’t as if she was booting up Stata every morning and running lots of regressions like a good econometrician. The field she helped create, which I generally just refer to as the study of the commons, faces several challenges that are likewise probably unfamiliar to many economists who do not devote substantial parts of their research time to going into the field to collect primary, very often observational (non-experimental) data. These challenges include the high cost of collecting such data and the comparatively low statistical power available to those of us who try to collect quantitative data in the field. So in this way it is more like anthropology, but it is also deeply informed by economic theory, which Lin’s work was as well of course.

DSW: The CDPs are a big part of Lin’s legacy but there is also more, including the concept of polycentric governance that she developed with her husband Vincent and others. How would you describe her full legacy? 

MC: Probably foremost here is the idea that top-down management is not always required and can sometimes cause more problems than it resolves. This is of course related to the idea of polycentric governance, which is often contrasted to a system with only one center of decision-making authority. Additionally, Lin was a strong advocate of the idea that there is not one solution to all our social or environmental problems. I actually think this is a profound idea, in part because we see all around us the temptation to proclaim otherwise. In the commons field, this often comes in the form of arguments in favor of a particular type of governance arrangement (such as market-based systems like cap-and-trade for climate change or individual transferable quota systems in fisheries). But in research in general, I think there is a tendency to find the “key” to explaining an important outcome, such as personal success or individual-level health outcomes. 

Indeed, the main criticism that has been leveled at Lin’s principles has been that they seem to some people to represent a “blueprint” approach to organization: just apply these principles and you will be successful. I think the response to that, as you have articulated, is to understand that each of the principles allows for a large diversity of implementations, so they are not as precisely prescriptive as they may seem.

Then to continue to respond to your original question, I think a big part of Lin’s legacy is the idea that science is a social enterprise, and that it is not just about being precise and following protocols, but is more like a craft, involving a mix of explicit and more implicit processes and activities. Both of these ideas are embodied in the use of the term “Workshop” in name of the center that Vincent and Lin created at Indiana. For me these are actually the parts of Lin’s legacy that I still experience most directly. My professional social network is hugely important to me, as I think much of what makes work enjoyable is who you do it with, and much of this network was produced during my time at the Workshop. I often contrasted in my mind the social atmosphere at the Workshop with the advice a dean once gave me when I was a first-year graduate student, in which she described getting a PhD as a “monastic” activity (which sounded awful to me).

DSW: As you know, our academic article generalizes the CDPs in two ways. First, they follow from the evolutionary dynamics of cooperation in all species and our evolutionary history as a highly cooperative species. Thus, the theoretical framework can be generalized beyond theories that are restricted to political science and economics. Second, for this reason, the CDPs apply to nearly any group whose members must work together to achieve common goals. In a sense, cooperation is itself a common pool resource. Have others arrived at this insight, apart from our own effort, and to what extent has the CDP framework been expanded beyond common-pool resource groups?

MC: It certainly has been applied to the analysis of groups that are not using an environmental commons. A little while ago the study of the commons was extended to include non-environmental commons, and some of the new work has explicitly examined the design principles. I would still say that they are primarily applied in an environmental context though. In any case, I do like your comment that “cooperation is itself a common pool resource.” Lin and others used to distinguish between a first-order collective-action problem, which is based on a divergence in interests of group members caused by their shared use of a common-pool resource, and a second-order collective-action problem, which is the problem of deciding who will incur the costs involved in producing the cooperation needed to resolve the first-order collective-action problem. The development and enforcement of the institutions needed to resolve first-order collective-action problems have the quality of a public good, and individuals thus have an incentive to free-ride on the efforts of others to provide these services to the group. Why should I go out and monitor when someone else will?

DSW: Thanks! Even though the CDPs are extremely general, as originally formulated by Lin they bear the earmarks of the particular kind of groups that she studied. Has this been commented upon and has anyone proposed amendments to the core set, either for common-pool resource groups or other kinds of groups?

MC: Well, within the study of environmental commons, the design principles are generally seen as a subset of a larger set of factors that are known to affect the likelihood of successful governance. Other factors include the size of the group involved, how heterogeneous this group is along different dimensions, and whether or not there are effective and accountable leaders to motivate the efforts of regular group members. So while there hasn’t been a lot of effort to better articulate the design principles per se, there definitely has been a lot of work done to expand the list of factors known to determine success. 

DSW: There’s a lot to be said here. PROSOCIAL makes a distinction between the Core Design Principles, which are needed by most groups, and “Auxiliary” principles, which are needed by some groups to accomplish their specific objectives. For example, in a school for at-risk students that I and my colleagues helped to design, we added two auxiliary principles (creating a safe and secure social environment and making long-term learning outcomes rewarding over the short term) to the eight CDPs.  I think that the concept of a core set is important and I wouldn’t want to see it diluted by the addition of many additional factors. Take group size as an example.  It is assuredly an important factor, but does it count as a ninth principle or is it important because it influences how the eight principles can be implemented? A lot of research will be required to clarify these issues. On that point, when we first started working together, you had already assessed Lin’s findings with an additional sample of common-pool resource groups. Have there been other assessments and how strong is the empirical support for the CDP approach today?

MC: Actually I am not aware of any similar efforts to do this.

DSW: As you know, PROSOCIAL uses the CDPs in a very practical way to improve the efficacy of groups of all sorts. Has this been attempted by any other individual or group?

MC: To my knowledge PROSOCIAL is unique in this way David. That is one of the main reasons I am really excited about what you all are doing with this effort.

DSW: PROSOCIAL has a second major component in addition to the CDPs—techniques for increasing psychological flexibility taken from the applied behavioral sciences. After all, adopting the CDPs requires individual and organizational change, which is not always easy. Do you know if any other change efforts based on the CDPs also pay attention to psychological flexibility?

MC: I do not; I think it may be a weakness of the study of the commons that we are not always aware of advances in psychological research, which are obviously relevant to our own efforts. 

DSW: I’d like to end by discussing the relationship between the CDP approach and other approaches to good governance at all scales. Because the CDPs (or more generally Multilevel Selection Theory) are so general, I tend to think that all other successful governance methods will reflect the same principles. It’s not as if another core set it out there! Here is how I sometimes put it: What Ostrom showed for common-pool resource groups is that some have adopted the CDPs without needing to be taught, while the same principles are sadly lacking in other groups. It was this variation that enabled Lin to derive the CDPs in the first place. The same variation can be expected for all other kinds of groups, including formalized methods of governance. Some work better than others and the difference can be attributed to the CDPs. That said, I also recognize the importance of auxiliary design principles required for groups with specific objectives, as we have already discussed.

This way of thinking about the generality of the CDPs works pretty well for me. For example, my most recent article for PROSOCIAL Magazine describes a book titled  “Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness”, by a management consultant named Frederic Laloux. It’s a fascinating book with wonderful case studies of businesses that work well, but this is because of the CDP’s, not other principles! As another seemingly very different example, some evangelical Christian churches have adopted a social organization called a cell group ministry, in which a large congregation is divided into small groups that meet in people’s homes. Why do these cells work so well? You guessed it!

In work that you alluded to earlier (https://sesmad.dartmouth.edu/), you describe an open access database that includes many theoretical perspectives, their predictions, and supporting data. I really admire this effort, which is audacious in scope, but at least upon my first reading there doesn’t seem to be an effort to derive a common set of principles shared by the theories. Lin’s CDP approach is just side by side with many others. Please help me relate the approach you are taking with this database with my own approach.

MC: Well, the database is designed to serve as a repository of theories that have stipulated relationships between independent factors and important outcomes of environmental commons governance. The context for these theories is not exclusively community-based natural resource management, which was Lin’s context when she developed the design principles. So there are many theories that are describing the outcomes that are predicted when, say, a centralized government tries to set up a large protected area, potentially by excluding natural resource users. There are many patterns of interactions between humans and their natural environment that are important to document, and so yes, in this context Lin’s design principles become one among many such patterns that have been discovered. And finally, as I mentioned before, even within the context of community-based natural resource management, there are factors that are known to matter other than the design principles, so we needed the database to reflect these as well.

DSW: This has been a great interview! Is there anything you would like to add that we have not already covered?

MC: Nope! I think that covers it!

DSW: Thanks for your time and I’m glad to introduce you to the PROSOCIAL community with this interview.

MC: Thank you very much David, I appreciated the chance to think about all of this again.

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In his PROSOCIAL Magazine article titled “The Design Principles Evolve Naturally”, Alan Honick describes how a group of stakeholders who couldn’t agree on anything came together to manage a forest ecosystem in Oregon. Without anyone coaching them, they spontaneously adopted the Core Design Principles that are formally taught to groups by PROSOCIAL.

Another example of the Core Design Principles evolving “naturally” has been brought to my attention by Benjamin (“Benji”) Schoendorff, founder of the Contextual Psychology Institute and a leader in the use of the Matrix as a rapid form of Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT), which has been incorporated into PROSOCIAL as a way to increase a group’s psychological flexibility (go here and here for more).  In this case the setting is the workplace rather than the wilderness, but the story is much the same—a model of cooperation, productivity, and well-being emerging like the proverbial Phoenix from the ashes of the soul-sapping business environment that makes so many people want to take their job and shove it. 

You can read all about it in a book titled “Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness”, by a management consultant named Frederic Laloux. An enthusiastic foreword is provided by Ken Wilber, a name that is likely to carry a lot of weight with some readers but not others, a point to which I will return.  Laloux uses a case study approach to illustrate an advanced form of consciousness and social organization that he calls “Evolutionary”. He also calls it “Teal” in a color-coding scheme that is useful for contrasting with other stages of consciousness and social organization. If you are scientifically inclined and your Woo-Woo alarm bell is beginning to ring, bear with me. 

The companies described by Laloux span diverse business sectors and range in size from 100 to 40,000 employees, so Teal businesses are not confined to a narrow niche market. Whatever one might think of Laloux’s theoretical and inspirational framing in the first part of his book, Teal businesses accord beautifully with the theory underlying PROSOCIAL, including the following:

  • The overarching metaphor is that a business organization is a type of organism.
  • Small groups are a fundamental social unit within the larger organization.
  • The small groups are provided with an exceptional degree of authority to govern their own affairs (CDP7) and implement CDP1-6 exceptionally well.
  • Relationships among groups within the larger organization reflect the same principles (CDP8).

I highly recommend this book to readers of PROSOCIAL Magazine and thank Benji for bringing it to my attention. I won’t spoil the fun of learning about the remarkable details in companies as diverse as Morning Star, which processes tomatoes in America, to Buurtzorg, which delivers health care to neighborhoods in the Netherlands. For the rest of this article, I want to reflect on what it means for the Core Design Principles to evolve “naturally”.

The first and most obvious point to make is that the Core Design Principles usually don’t evolve in the modern business world, naturally or any other way. That’s why the companies described by LaLoux are so unusual. Special conditions were required for them to evolve into Teal businesses.

A second point is that each company’s path to a Teal social organization was highly idiosyncratic. All of the founders were offended by the standard business model and bold enough to try something radically new, but their efforts were informed primarily by their personal experiences and what seemed like common sense to them. As far as I can tell by the information provided by LaLoux, none of the founders knew or cared about any formal theory of human nature and society. Neither did they think about adopting a scientific methodology to study and improve performance. 

A third point is that despite their different paths, the founders did converge on a common worldview that differed radically from the standard business worldview. Here is how Dennis Bakke, co-founder of the energy production and distribution company AES, describes the difference.

Standard Business Worldview

  • Workers are lazy. If they aren’t watched, they will not work diligently.
  • Workers work primarily for money. Hey will do what it takes to make as much money as possible.
  • Workers put their own interest ahead of what is best for the organization. They are selfish.
  • Workers perform best and are most effective if they have one simple repeatable task to accomplish.
  • Workers are not capable of making good decisions about important matters that affect the economic performance of the company. Bosses are good at making these decisions.
  • Workers do not want to be responsible for their actions or for decisions that affect the performance of the organization.
  • Workers need care and protection, just as children need the care of their parents.
  • Workers should be compensated by the hour or by the number of “pieces” produced. Bosses should be paid a salary and possibly receive bonuses and stock.
  • Workers are interchangeable parts of machines. One “good” worker is pretty much the same as ay other “good” worker.
  • Workers need to be told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Bosses need to hold them accountable.

AES Worldview

  • People are creative, thoughtful, trustworthy adults, capable of making important decisions.
  • People are accountable and responsible for their decisions and actions.
  • People are fallible. We make mistakes, sometimes on purpose.
  • People are unique and want to use their talents and skills to make a positive contribution to the organization and the world.

LaLoux rightly emphasizes a connection between a given worldview, or form of consciousness, and the social organization(s) likely to arise from the worldview. A company guided by the AES worldview will not inevitably adopt a Teal organization, but this outcome is much more likely than a company guided by the standard business worldview. To summarize: The “naturalness” of any given practice depends upon one’s underlying worldview, but there is still plenty of variation in the practices that can result from any given worldview, which can be selected upon based on their consequences.

Where does one’s worldview come from? Can we be more systematic about establishing a given worldview, rather than each person following his or her own idiosyncratic path? Can the worldview underlying a Teal organization be justified scientifically? That is what LaLoux attempts to accomplish in the first part of his book, building upon the work of Ken Wilber and likeminded authors.

Wilber is the author of “A Brief History of Everything” and many other books. He is described as the most widely read and translated author on consciousness studies in the world—yet he operates almost entirely outside the Ivory Tower. Few of my academic colleagues take him seriously or know about him at all. Something else about Wilber is that he wants to create a spiritual system in addition to a synthesis of knowledge. In other words, his writing is intended to inspire people to act, which earns him a large following outside the Ivory Tower but makes my academic colleagues squirm. They prefer to study knowledge purely for knowledge’s sake. 

The upshot is that the first part of LaLoux’s book is likely to be embraced by some readers but dismissed by many others as New Age nonsense. Is there any real scientific justification for the worldview underlying a Teal organization? As it turns out, I have a lot to say on that subject, including an ongoing dialogue with Ken Wilber himself.

First, some background: If anything qualifies as a theory of everything, or at least a theory of every living thing, it is evolutionary theory. As the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky declared in 1973, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.  This boldness was confined to the study of nonhuman species for most of the 20th century, but now it is expanding rapidly to include all aspects of humanity, fulfilling Darwin’s original vision. Thus, evolutionary science as a whole is converging upon Wilber’s individual quest to derive a theory of everything, which required him to drop out of college altogether in the 1970’s.

Second, there is nothing wrong with wanting to inspire people and move them to action! Even the pursuit of pure knowledge is justified on the basis of the need for pure knowledge to make wise decisions. It is naïve to expect a strict division of labor between knowledge producers and knowledge appliers. Anyone who holds such a view does not occupy the moral high ground.  The science underlying PROSOCIAL is based on a position called Functional Contextualism and for this reason is called Contextual Behavioral Science (CBS). It is derived from a philosophical tradition called Pragmatism that was developed by thinkers such as William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Pierce, and John Dewey, who were directly inspired by Darwin’s theory. In short, a contextual behavioral scientist would not (or at least should not) be embarrassed or dismissive of Wilber’s attempt to move people to act on the basis of a synthesis of scientific knowledge. 

It therefore remains to evaluate the synthetic efforts of Wilber and likeminded thinkers from a modern scientific (and especially evolutionary) perspective. Based on my own examination, I’m pleased to report that while Wilber can be accused of being an extreme generalist, he is committed to methodological naturalism and stays away from the Woo-Woo (by which I mean flagrant departures from factual reality) that is often associated with New Age thought. His four-quadrant Kosmos (not to be confused with the four-quadrant Matrix, although it is interesting to compare them) is very helpful for distinguishing the individual (top half) from the collective (bottom half) and the life of the mind (left half), which can accommodate multiple truths, from the physical world (right half), which can admit only one truth (e.g., mountains existed before people). I find the Kosmos easy to translate into modern evolutionary terms.

Other aspects of Wilber’s thought are more problematic, including a typology of stages of human history that is conflated with stages of individual human development. For example, I cringed when LaLoux, following Wilber and others, compared small-scale hunter-gatherer societies (a supposed early stage in human history) with the psychology of babies: “There are only a few remaining bands of people operating from this paradigm in the world today. However, child psychologists study what amounts to the same stage in newborn babies, who engage with the world via a comparable form of consciousness, where the concept of self isn’t yet fully separate from the mother and the environment.” This is a whopper that would cause most of my academic colleagues to stop reading further. 

Apart from obvious stages of individual development (e.g., the transformation from a tadpole to a frog or tooth development and puberty in mammals) historical and psychological stage theories tend to be problematic from a modern evolutionary perspective. However, it is not my purpose to attack Wilber or LaLoux for the occasional whopper. I would rather join them in an effort to create a scientific worldview that leads to human thriving, tossing out the whoppers as we proceed.  My dialogue with Ken Wilber and like-minded thinkers began a year ago and continues.

What does all of this mean for readers of PROSOCIAL Magazine? First, it means that we have some detailed case studies of prosociality evolving “naturally” in a workplace environment to learn from, similar to the forest management example provided by Alan Honick. Reinventing Organizations is well worth reading for the case studies, regardless of what you might think about the Wilberian framing.

Second, we have shown that what evolves “naturally” depends critically on the underlying worldview, a point also stressed by LeLoux.

Third, the science behind PROSOCIAL provides an even stronger foundation for  Teal organizations than LaLoux’s Wilberian framework. Even better, PROSOCIAL is designed to engage groups in ongoing scientific inquiry.

Finally, PROSOCIAL provides an opportunity to engage in deeply philosophical issues while improving the performance of groups in a practical sense. I find this combination doubly intoxicating.

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