Whenever people form groups, it is typically to do something together that cannot be done alone. The group can be as small as a pair or as large as a nation. The purpose can be as jovial as a party or as serious as a rescue mission. In all cases, members of the group must coordinate their activities in a way that provides a shared good, which is the reason that they came together in the first place.

It is common for scientists who study cooperation to describe it as a puzzle before offering their particular piece towards its solution. By now, enough pieces have been put together to make a pretty satisfying picture. Even better, this picture can be used to evaluate and improve the performance of real-world groups. That is the mission of PROSOCIAL, a practical framework for improving the efficacy of groups that has been under development at the Evolution Institute for several years and is now available for use.

PROSOCIAL represents a fusion of scientific disciplines including evolutionary theory, economics and political science, and the applied behavioral sciences. We have boiled these down to a set of core design principles that are required for groups to accomplish shared goals – no matter what the specific goal might be. The scientific foundation for PROSOCIAL is described in a number of academic publications listed at the end of this article. In my own work, I have applied the core design principle approach to groups as diverse as schools, neighborhoods, churches, and businesses. PROSOCIAL enables any group to quickly learn about the core design principles, give itself a checkup, and formulate goals for improving its efficacy in the future.

The first design principle required for any group to function well is a strong sense of identity and purpose. PROSOCIAL begins with an exercise that helps group members reflect upon their specific purpose and the underlying values that make it worthwhile to come together as a group. Group members also reflect upon the factors that interfere with achieving shared goals, which can be either internal (e.g., conflicts of interest among group members) or external (e.g., difficulties working with other groups or being allowed to manage one’s own affairs). The exercise is based upon techniques with proven effectiveness at helping individuals increase their psychological flexibility and move toward valued goals. In a group setting, the exercise can go a long way toward creating a strong sense of identity and purpose in a single session.

The other design principles concern matters such as an equitable distribution of costs and benefits, fair and efficient decision making, monitoring and responding to lapses in agreed-upon behaviors, fast and fair conflict resolution, the authority of the group to manage its own affairs, and appropriate relationships with other groups. These design principles are easy to understand and are spontaneously implemented by some groups without requiring coaching, but they are sadly lacking in other groups. Moreover, the design principles are a bit like the organs of your body: All of them are needed and removing any one will result in death (or a severely compromised group). Hence, nearly any group can benefit from a review and “checkup” to see how well the core design principles are being implemented. PROSOCIAL accomplishes this in a single session along with an opportunity to identify auxiliary design principles that are important to achieve particular goals – in addition to the core design principles that are needed to achieve almost any shared goal.

The next step of PROSOCIAL is to identify short-term goals that address shortcomings in the design principles and otherwise move the group in its valued direction. Whenever possible, these goals should be measurable, should have a deadline, and should have clearly identified group members responsible for their execution. This is standard good business practice, but it is remarkable how many groups (including businesses!) fail to employ them. PROSOCIAL makes it the standard operating procedure.

Any group can become involved in PROSOCIAL through a facilitator. Anyone experienced at working with groups can function as a facilitator. PROSOCIAL provides the specific training for walking the group through the process. Currently there is a website enabling facilitators to interact with each other and with the development team. Plans are underway for an internet platform that provides a website for each group and the means for groups to interact directly with each other.

Another notable feature of PROSOCIAL is that it will create a scientific database. While many pieces of the cooperation puzzle are in place, there is always more to learn. PROSOCIAL is structured so that the development team can learn from the groups while sharing its current knowledge about the science of cooperation. Your group can partake in the excitement of scientific research while enhancing its own performance.

PROSOCIAL is available free of charge during this phase of its development. To apply, please briefly describe your group and your interest in becoming involved by contacting Alan Honick here.

It is not an exaggeration to say that PROSOCIAL can substantially improve the quality of life – one group at a time.

Please watch the video below for more information on PROSOCIAL:

For more on the scientific foundation of PROSOCIAL, please consult the following academic articles.

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. doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2012.12.010

Wilson, D. S., Hayes, S. C., Biglan, A., & Embry, D. (2014). Evolving the future: Toward a science of intentional change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, in press.

Polk, K., & Schoendorff, B. (Eds.). (2014). The ACT matrix: A new approach to building psychological flexibility across settings and populations. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

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. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0027826

Wilson, D. S., Marshall, D., & Iserhott, H. (2011). Empowering groups that enable play. American Journal of Play, 3(4), 523–538.

Published On: July 7, 2014

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is president of Prosocial World and SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, through Prosocial World and in his own research and writing.  A complete archive of his work is available at www.David SloanWilson.world. His most recent books include his first novel, Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III, and a memoir, A Life Informed by Evolution.


  • Bill Cameron says:

    I would like to become a facilitator. I have worked extensively with groups as a consultant and I know ACT.

    Bill Cameron
    Boulder, CO

  • Andrew J. D'Amico PH.D LLC says:

    I will be starting a free teen community support group for adolescents 15-18 shortly and would like to use this group as a means of installing and studying Design Principles discussed at WC-12.  I am looking forward to being part of Pro social Project.

  • Andrew J. D'Amico Ph.D says:

    I am extremely excited about being a part of Pro Social.  I plan to install and study the Design Principles within the structure of a free adolescent community support group that will be starting soon.  I believe the group will make a difference in the community and will benefit from making use of the principles. I am honored to work with such an esteemed group of scientists!

  • Andrew DAmico says:

    I am thrilled to be part of this project and plan to apply and study design principles within the structure of my community based teen support group

  • Andrew J. D'Amico says:

    I am thrilled to be part of this project.  I have been following the work of David Sloan Wilson, Steve Hayes, Tony Biglan, Kelly Wilson, Joseph Ciarrochi, and Paul Atkins with great interest and believe that by applying Elinor Ostrom Design Principles in group settings that a true difference can be made in optimizing how groups functions. I am interested in applying this to my Adolescent Community Support Group-ACT which is in the process of starting up. I plan to incorporate and study the principles and work with the Prosocial while facilitating this group. I look forward to being a part of this important work.

  • Andrew J. D'Amico says:

    Very interested in working with this project applying Elinor Ostrom’s Design Principles to my Community Support group for Teens. I am facilitator and would like to become Pro Social Facilitator.

  • Andrew J. D'Amico PH.D LLC says:

    I plan to use my Community Based Adolescent Support Group that I have facilitated over the course of 12 years to institute, apply, study and monitor the Olsrom Design Principles. I am excited about being part of ProSocial. As an ACT Therapist, I see great potential for benefit of all groups I work with including families, schools, and clinical staff.

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks for your interest! To become involved, please email Alan Honick at arhonick@gmail.com or join the Meetup site directly by visiting Meetup.com, typing “Prosocial” (one word) in the box for locating groups, and setting the distance setting to “any distance”. You will be prompted for biographical information. Once that is completed, we will receive an automatic message to accept you.

  • […] están interesados en aprender un poco más sobre la plataforma, pueden visitar este artículo en el Evolution Institute (en […]

  • Norma Bauer says:

    I have long been a fan of Dr. Wilson’s work ever since he appeared on Krista Tippett’s On Bbeing show. I am very interested in getting this training even though I’m not sure how you define “a strong sense of identity.” One is a UCC church founded in 1873; another is a meetup group for atheists and humanists that’s probably less than 10 years old. I don’t exactly know how to proceed. I am not a part of the church’s bureaucracy and although I’ve been named by the founder of the other group as an event host and member of its social justice committee and have lectured to the group on three occasions, it has not formed a bureaucracy and may never form one, as several members describe ourselves as anarchists. A third group is a time bank that’s still a-borning. While its leadership sees value in becoming a 501(c)(3), meetings are conducted along the lines of anarchy principles. I have experience as a college instructor, tutor, social worker, and mental health counselor.

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