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If you’re an economist, and if you’re in many business groups, then you think you know it’s all about self-interest. That’s the only thing you ever appeal to. The design principles in Prosocial provide a different kind of functional blueprint for what a group wants to become. The first element, psychological flexibility, increases the capacity for change. Change is difficult. I’ve started to think about ACT— acceptance and commitment therapy—as an evolutionary process at the individual level that changes evolution at other levels.

Lin Ostrom’s Nobel Prize-winning research is studied mostly in the context of common-pool resource groups. And we generalized it in two ways. One is to show that the design principles follow very generally from multi-level selection theory, from the evolutionary dynamics of cooperation. Once you take that on, it becomes clear that these design principles should really apply to all groups. The Zeitgeist in business groups is often one of complete selfishness, social Darwinism; we expect that everyone is motivated by self-interest, and presume that competition within groups is a good thing. The whole model of leadership is often very top-down and so in the context of some backgrounds, the core design principles, as a blueprint for a well-functioning group, are highly counterintuitive and counseled against by the prevailing worldview.

This paradigm creates a third way between total laissez-faire on one hand, and command-and-control on the other hand. It’s called polycentric governance, because you have to address the larger scales in addition to the smaller scales. Those design principles—they’ve got teeth, like altruism with attitude. They dictate what you can and cannot do. The first design principle defines the group and who’s in it, and if you’re not in it, you don’t get to share the common-pool resource. So prosociality requires not just figuring out what’s prosocial within the group, but also how does a group fit into a larger, multigroup social organization that in turn is prosocial.

Published On: January 29, 2021

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .

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