The Story of PROSOCIAL

Introducing PROSOCIAL


PROSOCIAL is a method of helping almost any group function more effectively to achieve its goals. It supports the organization of bottom-up governance that empowers groups at a local level to take charge of their own affairs. It coordinates activities among different groups at multiple levels, ensuring that these bottom-up organizations mesh smoothly with top-down institutions and constraints.

An irrigation system management group in Nepal

PROSOCIAL is based on a set of eight core design principles for groups, originally derived by Elinor Ostrom. Her work focused on small-scale local groups who manage what are known as common-pool resources, such as forests, fisheries, or water systems. Prevailing wisdom was that either top-down regulation or market-based privatization were required to manage such resources. Otherwise, they might suffer the tragedy of the commons, where resources are depleted and eventually destroyed through uncoordinated, self-serving exploitation.

Ostrom and her colleagues conducted a series of studies over decades, demonstrating that such tragedies need not occur. People were often able to self-organize, and manage shared resources sustainably. However, this only happened when specific principles of governance were in place. These became known as the Design Principles for Common Pool Resource Institutions. In 2009, she won the Nobel prize in Economics for this body of work.



PROSOCIAL was originally conceived by David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist who specializes in the study of cooperation and altruism in all species. In 2007 he helped create the Evolution Institute, with the goal of using an evolutionary perspective to gain insight into some of the pressing real-world problems humans face. He recognized a consilience between Ostrom’s core design principles and his own efforts to understand the conditions required for cooperation to take place in any group of social organisms, ranging from simple bacteria to complex group-living creatures such as, bees, wolves, and humans.


So, in 2009 Wilson began a collaboration with Ostrom and her associate Michael Cox. The goal of their collaboration was to generalize the core design principles in two respects: First, by showing that they follow from the evolutionary dynamics of cooperation in all species, and our own evolutionary history as a highly cooperative species. Second, because they apply to all forms of cooperation, they apply to a much wider diversity of human groups than those managing natural resources.

The generalized core design principles are shown at right.

Generalizing these principles was much more than an academic exercise on Wilson’s part. He was interested in the potential of actively instilling them in groups, with the goal of increasing their effectiveness, and encouraging them to fulfill a more pro-social role in society at large. There was no method or precedent for doing that. In the common-pool resource groups that Ostrom studied, the principles had evolved naturally over time. To proactively instill them would require groups to evolve and change.

BLUGREEN MATRIX.jpgSo, the next step in PROSOCIAL’s development was to incorporate a method of intentional change. Wilson had already been working with a group of psychologists that included  Steven C. Hayes, the founder of ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT is an approach for achieving positive change in individuals, by helping them identify the various thoughts and emotions, as well as actions and behaviors, that take them either away from or toward their valued goals. It uses a device called the matrix to help accomplish that in graphic form.

The goal of ACT is to achieve psychological flexibility, which helps individuals select both the inward and outward qualities that help move them where they want to go in life. The version of ACT used in PROSOCIAL is designed for use with groups rather than individuals, and is known as Acceptance and Commitment Training.

The PROSOCIAL Organization

PROSOCIAL is currently building a worldwide network of trained facilitators to work with groups of all kinds, including businesses, government organizations, and all kinds of NGOs, from environmental groups to healthcare to education, and many more.

We are in the process of developing a website that will serve as the educational and organizational hub for PROSOCIAL. This will provide educational resources for both facilitators and groups, and communication tools for both as well. Since PROSOCIAL is also a research project, the website will serve as a data-gathering site so that we can track the progress of groups over time, and improve our own methods.


Below are two videos that show how PROSOCIAL has been used in two radically different settings.

PROSOCIAL and Ebola in Sierra Leone

In March of 2014, Beate Ebert, a member of the PROSOCIAL development team, and her associate Hannah Bockarie helped launch an organization in Sierra Leone called Commit and Act. They planned to use PROSOCIAL to help heal the social fabric that had been torn by of violent civil strife in recent years.

Then, in May of 2014, the Ebola virus broke out in Sierra Leone, and began to spread. Beate and Hannah came up with an ambitious plan to intercede at the local level with PROSOCIAL training to contain the spread of the deadly  disease. In this video they recount their memories of those times, and how effectively PROSOCIAL worked in that cultural milieu, to help people adapt successfully in a time of crisis.

Takoma Radio

Takoma Radio is a recently launched low-power FM community radio station whose mission is to offer hyper-local, non-commercial radio to a diverse, multi-jurisdictional urban community, on the border between Maryland and Washington DC.

The three women who launched the station – Marika Partridge, Tatyana Safronova, and Désirée Bayonet wanted to establish good governance practices from the start, for both themselves and the community groups who would participate in programming and broadcast. They also wanted to establish an appropriate relationship with their parent community organization, Historic Takoma. So they went through the PROSOCIAL process, to both enhance their effectiveness, and establish the governance practices that would guide them to success.