Book Review: Working Together on Working Together, The ‘Prosocial’ Method for Building Cooperative Groups

By Michael D. Pulliam


Why do people cooperate together? How can you help a group you care about to function well instead of stalling out to disengagement? How can our society cultivate more supergroups like networks of food cooperatives, coalitions of environmental organizations, or the United Nations?

There is one answer that’s actually pretty straightforward, although as you might expect it’s easier read than done. One of the fundamental challenges of social life is how to balance people’s individual needs against the conflicting needs of the ever-growing collective. In their book Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups (2019), Drs. Atkins, Wilson, and Hayes explore the key principles and common-sense guidelines that have helped untold generations of people work well together—and can help us realize a greener, more sustainable future.

Prosocial is part evolutionary science, part social science, and part self-help (or rather, group-help). The foundational ideas of the Prosocial method come to us from the late Dr. Elinor Ostrom, who received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for her work on ‘the commons’: how do groups manage a common resource (like a watershed, forest, or pasture) without exhausting it? Modern thinking has typically hinged on two solutions: the resource must be privatized so a property owner can oversee it, or it must belong to the public sector so an official agency can regulate it and the people who use it. Dr. Ostrom traveled the world to visit communities who depend on exhaustible resources and she observed something different. Ostrom’s 8 Principles, an interlocking set of community norms and agreements, form the basis of the Prosocial method, adapted (in collaboration with Dr. Ostrom) to purposefully build and consciously evolve cooperative groups of any size. Imagine the positive impact this kind of thoughtfulness could have on the environmental movement in your area and across the globe!

These are the Core Design Principles that any group can embrace to help it flourish: 1) a shared sense of identity and purpose, 2) equitable distribution of contributions and benefits, 3) fair and inclusive decision making, 4) monitoring agreed behaviors, 5) graduated responding to helpful and unhelpful behavior, 6) fast and fair conflict resolution, 7) authority to self-govern, 8) collaborative relations with other groups.

Setting a shared image of identity and worthwhile purpose among all group members helps people know they belong, and can shape the part they play in pursuing the group’s aims. Spreading the contributions and benefits of participation among group members according to need and desire helps balance the sense of fairness that most people are attuned to. If a given choice will affect certain people, involving them in making that choice is a crucial element for keeping everyone engaged and motivated, as well as making the most informed and wisest decision possible. Establishing a culture of transparency so that people are informed about what others are doing helps keep everyone on track to achieve the group’s missions and uphold its values. Reinforcing helpful behavior and gradually addressing unhelpful behavior is a sure way for peers and leaders alike to maintain trust, integrity, and good faith, as long as rewards and sanctions are not out of proportion with the acts themselves. Deciding in advance how conflict will be discussed and resolved helps ensure fair play and avoid festering resentments. Empowering teams and departments to govern their own work, make their own agreements, and implement the Principles their own way is imperative to creating high-performing groups. And consciously applying all these Principles to our group’s interactions with other groups paves the way for supergroups to grow, making possible much of the global coordination we’ve seen in the past century. These Core Design Principles are the building blocks of sustainable, thriving unity. Most groups have several principles in place; few groups have them all.

So how do we guide our relationships, workplaces, or movements in this direction? It takes time and effort and a lot of conversation, but by using insights from evolutionary science it can be done from almost any position within your group’s structure. Think about a group you identify with (as small as a family or as large as a global organization) that could benefit from becoming more productive, more equitable, and more collaborative. The groundwork for change involves setting expectations, building or rebuilding trust, and making space in meetings for psychological and emotional flexibility. You would then fully assess your group’s handle on the 8 Principles to inform the changes you want to make, arrange meetings for discussing the Principles and other topics vital to your group, and plan measurable actions everyone can take and reflect on to develop and grow. Keep checking in on progress, and repeat as needed!

Prosocial offers a variety of powerful interpersonal tools for enacting and measuring these changes. The primary strategy is borrowed from Acceptance and Commitment Training (cousin of modern psychology’s influential Cognitive Behavioral Therapy): four simple questions to guide everything from individual reflection to dynamic whole-group meetings. Every chapter includes topical prompts to get people thinking about their goals and values, opening up to share with the group, and staying connected through the emotions that so often arise. There are also numerous resources for facilitators, including step-by-step instructions on how to schedule a series of meetings, what to discuss during and between each session, and how to set goals and keep each other on track to achieve them. All this and more is firmly supported by experimental studies in evolution, psychology, and cultural change.

Human beings are undoubtedly the most cooperative species on Earth. Even ultrasocial creatures like ants and bees are at best indifferent to anyone they aren’t immediately related to, so the fact that people sometimes go to great lengths to help total strangers who can never repay them is a foundation for tremendous hope. If we harness the immense potential of human cooperativeness by consciously evolving our groups to be more prosocial, the coming decades can hold immeasurable promise for all life on this planet. And if you’ve read this far, you are the perfect agent for change.

Order Prosocial from your local bookstore and join the conversation!