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The science behind our method

Prosocial Spirituality was born out of our desire to explore the integration of evolutionary science with evolutionary spirituality. The aim is to train groups in principles derived from the horizontal dimension of social and evolutionary science and the vertical dimension of universal spiritual principles that can enable both personal and group transformation.

Our training is firmly grounded in scientific theory and research, and we are also continuously researching Prosocial Spirituality to help strengthen our evidence and our methods. Our framework is derived from four bodies of research:
Social Science
Lead Prosocial developer David Sloan Wilson worked with Elinor Ostrom for three years to generalise her core design principles approach and turn it into a practical change method.
Evolutionary Science
Modern evolutionary science provides the general theoretical framework for integrating CBS, political science and economics, and other branches of science that are typically isolated from each other.
Contextual Behavioral Science (CBS)
CBS refers to the applied study of behavior in the context of everyday life, including behavioral, cognitive, and mindfulness-based therapeutic and training techniques.
Contemplative Science
Contemplative science is an emerging field of study. The term was coined by Buddhist scholar Dr. B. Alan Wallace in his book Contemplative Science. It’s often associated with Buddhism and Neuroscience but is expanding to include many different forms of contemplative practices that the impact that these practices have on the body, mind and consciousness.
Evolutionary Spirituality
The leading edge of evolutionary spirituality is interspirituality. The term interspirituality was coined by Wayne Teasdale in his book The Mystic Heart, where he also outlined 9 Elements of Universal Spirituality that are common among the spiritual traditions.

Scientific Building Blocks of Prosocial Spirituailty

The Nobel prize-winning research of Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) was a political scientist who studied groups that managed natural resources such as forests, pastures, fisheries, and irrigation systems. These are called commons because they can be drawn upon by a number of people. They are vulnerable to overuse, as noted by the ecologist Garrett Hardin in his famous 1968 article in Science magazine titled “The Tragedy of the Commons”.

Conventional economic wisdom held that the tragedy of the commons would always occur unless prevented by top-down regulations or privatizing the resource (which is only sometimes possible). Ostrom’s achievement was to compile a worldwide database of common-pool resource groups and to show that some of them were capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons on their own—but only if they possess certain “core design principles” listed in table 1. This insight was so new against the background of conventional economic wisdom that it merited the profession’s highest honor.
Elinor Ostrom working in the field with a common-pool resource group managing an irrigation system.

Evolutionary Science

David Sloan Wilson was fortunate to work with Ostrom and her postdoctoral associate, Michael Cox (a professor of Environmental Science at Dartmouth College) for three years prior to her death in 2012. The main result of this collaboration was to show that the core design principles could be generalized to all groups whose members must cooperate to accomplish shared goals. In addition to core design principles that are needed for cooperation in all its forms, there are other design principles that are needed by some groups but not others to accomplish their particular goals. These are called auxiliary design principles and they are as important as the core design principles for the groups that need them.

While the core design principles are needed by virtually all groups, the particular way they are implemented can be highly contextual. Group members are the best judge of how to implement the design principles, which is why the authority to self-govern (core design principle #7) is so important.

It's a pointer to the continual tension between acting out of the interests of what is best for me, and acting out of the interests of what is best for my group. If you stop and pay attention to your daily life you will see very quickly that many, many times a day we face a choice between doing what's best for us, and doing what's best for the groups to which we belong. "Should I put in that extra bit of effort at work when I would much prefer to be taking some leisure time?", "Should I purchase that new shiny toy I want or save the money for my family?" Or even, "should I stop trying to convince this person that I am right, and start to listen to them?"

Of course, human beings are such a wonderfully social species that our own needs and interests often include catering for the needs and interests of others. We all value caring for loved ones and cooperating with people to achieve what matters to us. It is the human condition to care very much about belonging in groups, but also to care very much about our own individual needs and interests. This is, in a very real sense, the fundamental human dilemma.

Multilevel-selection theory systematizes that understanding by pointing out that variation, selection and retention can occur at any level within a dynamic system. So under some conditions, selfishness can be selected for, while under other conditions, more cooperative behaviours are selected. Prosocial is designed to increase the strength of the selection forces for cooperative behaviours, and decrease the selection forces for more self-interested behaviours.

In effect, the principles of Prosocial create the conditions for a group to start behaving more like a single organism, than a collection of individuals. This shift from separate organisms to organisms that are so cooperative that they appear to behave like a single organism has happened multiple times in evolutionary history. Think of, for example, cells cooperating to form organisms. Or insects cooperating to form huge colonies that appear to act in almost perfect synchrony. When individual cells replicate themselves at the expense of the whole body we call it cancer. The smooth functioning of our bodies relies upon mechanisms to suppress the selfishness of individual cells. We can think of humans as being similar but different to these examples.

When some people learn about multilevel selection theory, their first response is "but I don't want to be a termite! My individual identity is precious to me”. Talk of suppression of self-interested behavior can sound to some a little bit like a totalitarian state. But we need to be careful about going to extremes. Arguably the cult of individualism in the West has elevated individual choice and utility to such a degree that it is undermining our connections to others. What we need is a way of encouraging cooperation while still respecting the wholeness of individuals.

Prosocial is designed to achieve that balance by creating the social conditions that encourage shared effort towards a common goal and discourage excessively disruptive behaviour. Think of it as more like birds flying in formation. They can choose to fly alone or even to fly in a different direction, but it is much more satisfying to fly together. And to rotate who goes in front!

Contextual Behavioral Science (CBS)

The third body of work underpinning Prosocial Spirituality is the science of behaviour change known as Contextual Behavioural Science and psychology. In a nutshell, Contextual.                   

Behavioural Science is an evolutionary theory of behaviour, 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 changing behaviour in groups is changing the way we relate to our own experiences and to those of others in the group.

Contextual Behavioural Science gives us practical tools to help people clarify what really matters to them individually, and to integrate those individual needs and interests with those of the group as a whole. It helps us think more clearly about when our assumptions and beliefs are getting in the way of positive relationships. And it helps us articulate positive ways forward so that people can be authentically themselves while also achieving great things together.

Steven C. Hayes is a highly recognized expert in CBS and an early development team member of Prosocial World. Steve founded a version of behavioral/cognitive/mindfulness based therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced as one word), which has become popular around the world and validated by many scientific studies. Steve also helped to found the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) which numbers over 8000 members worldwide and has played a major role in the adoption of Prosocial.

Paul Atkins is the architect of current Prosocial training. He brings a foundation of mindfulness and psychology to Prosocial and continues to build on the CBS and ACT practices. Paul is also a ACBS fellow. Paul is co-developing the Prosocial Spirituality Facilitator training with Jeff Genung and Kate Sheehan Roach.

Interspirituality & Contemplative Science

Interspirituality refers to an evolutionary form of spirituality that explores the common ground all religious and spiritual traditions. The word Interspirituality was coined by Wayne Teasdale, a globally recognized and loved mystic and visionary. Wayne recognized that, “All authentic spiritual paths, at their mystical core, are committed to the common values of peace, compassionate service, and love for all creation.

An inner life awakened to responsibility and love naturally expresses itself through engaged spirituality, in “acts of compassion…, contributing to the transformation of the world and the building of a nonviolent, peace-loving culture that includes everyone.” (The Mystic Heart). Jeff Genung was a close personal friend of Wayne Teasdale. Wayne’s contemplative vision has had a significant impact on Jeff’s work with Contemplative Life which is collaborating with Prosocial World on the Prosocial Spirituality initiative.

Contemplative science refers to an emerging field of study explores the impact of practices such as meditation, mindfulness and other contemplative practices on the body and mind of practitioners. Organizations like the Mind and Life Institute has been supporting pioneering research in this area for three decades. Also, universities such as the University of Virginia , University of Wisconsin , Brown and many others are also doing groundbreaking work in this field of study.