Some experiments are as memorable as a good short story. For example, when Dan O’Brien was my Ph.D. student, he showed Binghamton University college students photos of good and bad neighborhoods in the city of Binghamton and then had the students play an experimental economics game with a high school student from the neighborhood, in which the behavioral options were to cooperate or defect. The two players did not meet face to face. Instead, they indicated their behavioral choice on a piece of paper, but the game did take place and wasn’t imaginary.1
Viewing a photograph of the neighborhood had a huge effect on the behavior of the college students. Like any sensible turtle, they pulled into their shells (choosing the defect option) when they sensed danger and came out of their shells (choosing the cooperate option) when they felt safe. This result saddened me because it meant that the residents of so-called “bad” neighborhoods experience a different face of human nature—an untrusting face—even before their first social interaction with a person—based on that person’s assessment of the surrounding environment.
Another experiment that took place in Binghamton made me feel more optimistic. I was invited to help design a school for at-risk high school students in the city’s public school system.2 Working with another of my Ph.D. students, Rick Kauffman, and the principal who was assigned to the school, Miriam Purdy, we designed a social environment for the school that was safe and secure—like a good neighborhood.
The at-risk students who entered our school came overwhelmingly from the bad neighborhoods, the ones that caused the college students to pull into their shells at the mere sight of a photograph. We couldn’t change their neighborhoods, but would they come out of their shells during the school day, within the social environment that we could change?
Amazingly and gratifyingly, they did. Not only did they perform much better than a comparison group of at-risk students in a randomized control trial, but they even performed on a par with the average high school student in the Binghamton public school system on the state-mandated exams required for all the students. Even more amazing, the performance jump came primarily during the first quarter of the school year.
Teenagers that have endured a lifetime of hardship bouncing back within a single quarter? It seems too good to be true until you remember the parable of the turtle. Just because the students were forced to spend most of their lives within their shells doesn’t mean that they had forgotten how to come out. They were probably accustomed to coming out of their shells—just very selectively–in relationships or situations that could be trusted. That’s why they could respond so swiftly to the trustworthy social environment that we managed to create, judging by the results of our randomized control trial.
How did we create a trustworthy social environment? It wasn’t rocket science. Instead, it was based on eight core design principles (CDPs) identified by the political scientist Elinor Ostrom in her study of groups attempting to manage common resources such as forests, fields, fisheries, and groundwater. These resources are vulnerable to overuse by people who take more than their share, a problem dubbed “the tragedy of the commons” by the ecologist Garrett Hardin. But Ostrom showed that groups can avoid the tragedy of overuse if they implement these CDPs. This was such an important discovery that she was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 2009. I was honored to work with Lin, as she asked everyone to call her, and her postdoctoral associate Michael Cox, who is now a professor of environmental science at Dartmouth College. Together we generalized the CDPs to apply to any social context that requires cooperation—including a school for at-risk high school students.3
To see how the CDPs work, imagine that you join a group that requires cooperation among its members to achieve a common goal. The specific objective doesn’t matter: It might be a school, business, neighborhood, sports team, or church. The common denominator is the need to cooperate. You’re eager to do your part but the CDPs are sadly absent. The purpose of the group is unclear or not very meaningful, some people do most of the work while others get the benefits, important decisions are made by some without consulting others, there is little transparency, cheating goes unpunished and cooperation goes unrecognized, conflicts fester, and so on. Like any sensible turtle, you would leave if you could or pull into your shell, withholding your prosocial efforts, if you were forced to remain.
Or maybe you’re the sort of person who likes to exploit social situations like this for your own gain. In that case, you would find this group to be easy pickings.
Now imagine that the group strongly implements the CDPs. As someone who wants to be prosocial, you know that your efforts on behalf of the group will be meaningful (CDP1), that your rewards will be proportional to your efforts (CDP2), that you will take part in decisions (CDP3), that there will be transparency (CDP4), and so on. Like any sensible turtle, you will come out of your shell as soon as you have convinced yourself of the safety of your social environment.
And if you are the sort of person who likes to exploit social situations for your own gain—Well, you had better look elsewhere, because this group is well protected against the likes of you!
As I said, this is not rocket science. I’m guessing that nearly everyone reading these words understands the CDPs and how they create a social environment that makes it safe to come out of one’s shell. But there is something revolutionary about the CDPs that, if truly appreciated, could improve the quality of life worldwide in a single stroke.
To appreciate the revolutionary nature of the CDPs, ask yourself the question, how could something so simple and intuitive merit a Nobel prize? The answer is that no idea is simple or intuitive all by itself—only against the background of other ideas. The economics profession is dominated by the idea of individuals as rational actors interested only in maximizing their own utilities, with markets performing the alchemy of transforming their self-interest into the common good. It is against this background that the overuse of common resources appears inevitable unless the resources are privatized or top-down regulations are imposed. This is why Ostrom’s work merited a Nobel prize in economics, no matter how common-sensical from some other perspectives.
Here is something else to ponder: Lin did not show that groups invariably implement the CDPs to manage their common resources. She showed that groups vary in their implementation, with corresponding variation in the tragedy of overuse. It was the variation that enabled her to derive the CDPs in the first place. Some groups performed spectacularly without needing to be coached. Others experienced total meltdowns. Most muddled along somewhere in between. Even the high performers didn’t necessarily know what they were doing. Often the design principles were implemented in the form of unquestioned religious beliefs.4 The CDPs often worked without anyone knowing why they worked or how they had come about.
What Lin showed for a particular kind of group can also be generalized to all kinds of groups, with the need to cooperate as their common denominator. Pick any kind of group—a school, a neighborhood, a business, a church, a government—and you will find that they vary in their implementation of the CDPs and even the best can’t necessarily explain what they are doing right and why it works.
A recent survey study that I led illustrates both of my previous points.5 Participants were asked to provide information on two groups that they knew well: a workgroup and any other group of their choice. For each group, they rated how well the CDPs were implemented and how well the group functioned as a cooperative unit. Here are the main take-home results of the study.
- All types of groups varied in their implementation of the CDPs.
- Implementation of the CDPs correlated strongly with group performance outcomes.
- Workplace groups needed the CDPs as much as other kinds of groups.
- On average, workplace groups were deficient in all eight CDPs. I attribute this largely to the blinding influence of economic theory.
To summarize, nearly every group on earth can benefit from implementing the CDPs and understanding them for what they are: the design features of a social environment that make it safe to be prosocial.
But wait! There’s more! I’ve saved the most revolutionary implication of the CDPs for last. I spend a lot of time around people who work earnestly toward positive change in the world. Some have an economic orientation. Others have a psychological orientation. Still, others have a spiritual orientation. Often there is an implicit assumption that if you want to change the way a person acts, you must first change how they think and feel. You must accomplish some sort of inner transformation. Once a person becomes more prosocial-minded, they will become more prosocial in their actions.
A lot of work often goes into producing this inner transformation. Sometimes the techniques are derived from the great wisdom traditions such as Buddhism. Sometimes they are derived from modern science, such as behavior, cognitive, and mindfulness-based therapies. Either way, it is expected to be a long journey with the need to practice, practice, practice.
Now, I’m not here to discount the importance of examining and mindfully changing what goes on inside your head. In fact, I will showcase it in a separate essay. But focusing exclusively on an inner transformation misses a point that is elementary from an evolutionary perspective.
Let’s say that the inner transformation succeeds in causing a person to behave more prosocially. Every prosocial action will have consequences for the welfare of that person and others affected by the action. If these consequences are distributed unfairly, such that more self-oriented actors get most of the benefits and prosocial actors support most of the costs, prosocial action is not sustainable over the long term. Prosocial actors cannot fill the cups of others without having their own cups filled in return.
It follows that inner work should never be contemplated without equal attention to outer work—the construction of social environments that make prosocial actions sustainable over the long term. That’s where the implementation of the CDPs come in.
I’ll go even further: To a remarkable extent, the outer work of implementing the CDPs in group settings can be sufficient without requiring any inner work at all. That is the true meaning of the parable of the turtle. Like any sensible turtle, all of us have the basic instincts to sense our social environments, to pull into our shells when threatened, and come out of our shells when it is safe to do so. The college students in Dan’s experiment didn’t need a course in mindfulness-based therapy and neither did the students in our school. They already knew how to be prosocial and were waiting for the opportunity to safely express it. This means that when we work to implement the CDPs in all kinds of groups around the world, we can expect to see immediate benefits.
It turns out that laughter is one of our basic instincts for sensing safe environments and coming out of our shells.6 Laughter has all the earmarks of a genetically evolved adaptation. It has precursors in other primate species, it appears early in life (before speech) and performs numerous functions. Its most basic function is to rapidly communicate that the environment is safe for the moment and that it’s OK to come out of our shells. We don’t need to worry about being eaten by a lion, where our next mouthful of food will come from or being bullied by other members of our group. Those things are no laughing matter. But because we are safe and secure for the moment, we can be relaxed, be playful, and “broaden and build” our relationships with each other and our environment.7
We will know that we have implemented the CDPs when our work in groups is accompanied by laughter.
 O’Brien, D. T., & Wilson, D. S. (2011). Community Perception: The ability to assess the safety of unfamiliar neighborhoods and respond adaptively. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 606–620.
 Wilson, D. S., Kauffman, R. A., & Purdy, M. S. (2011). A Program for At-risk High School Students Informed by Evolutionary Science. PLoS ONE, 6(11), e27826–e27826. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0027826
 Wilson, D. S., Ostrom, E., & Cox, M. E. (2013). Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 90, S21–S32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jebo.2012.12.010
 Cox, M., Villamayor-Tomas, S., & Hartberg, Y. (2014). The Role of Religion in Community-based Natural Resource Management. World Development, 54, 46–55. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2013.07.010
 Wilson, D. S., Philip, M. M., MacDonald, I. F., Atkins, P. W. B., & Kniffin, K. M. (2020). Core design principles for nurturing organization-level selection. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 13989–13989. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-70632-8
 Gervais, M., & Wilson, D. S. (2005). The Evolution and Functions of Laughter and Humor: A Synthetic Approach. Quarterly Review of Biology, 80, 395–430.
 Kok, D. E., Catalino, L. I., & Frederickson, B. L. (2008). The broadening, building, buffering effects of positive emotions. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Positive psychology: Exploring the best of people: Vol 3 Capitalizing on the emotional experiences (pp. 1–19). Greenwood.