ProSocial Teaming: Elinor Ostrom & ‘The Commons’

This is the third installment of my walk through the new book, Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups, by Dr.’s Paul W. B. Atkins, David Sloan Wilson, and Steven C. Hayes, from Context Press, 2019. My aim is to discuss the book, chapter by chapter, as a sort of summary and review for folks who don’t know what Prosocial is or don’t have time to pick the book up and read it themselves right now. Credit for anything enlightening should go to the authors, here – I’m no Prosocial expert. See links below for earlier posts.

I hope that some introduction to the information in this book inspires people to give it a read. The lessons and practices in this book will apply to anyone interested in improving collaboration and equity in their communities or organizations, large or small.

The Tragedy of the Commons

In my previous post, we considered how individual self-interests can drive behaviors that compromise the interests of the larger community in which the individual exists. ‘What is good for the individual may be bad for the group,’ is one way to summarize this idea. Dr. Elinor Ostrom, whose work influenced much of what we’ll be discussing next, 

Garrett Hardin explored this in a well-known article, “The Tragedy of the Commons” (Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162 (3859), 1243-1248). In this article, Hardin concludes that, in the context of shared-resource pools (think: livestock pasture land, for example), people’s individual self-interests are so likely to interfere with the success of groups that failure of these groups can only be mitigated by top-down regulation, or total privatization of the resource wherein markets regulate access to the resource. Hardin’s argument was, and still remains, compelling – after all, aren’t these the predominant forces regulating groups today? If not the government or market-rules, what dictates the way we interact with resources?

Unfortunately, both of these options – free-market rule and top-down governance – have their own flaws. Elinor Ostrom accepted that self-interest was a barrier to cooperation, but challenged the premise that these are the only – or best – modes of regulation. See the table below with Ostrom’s observed deficits regarding these strategies.

Dr. Ostrom articulated key deficits to common group-regulation structures.

So, if these widely-employed approaches to managing groups are both deficient, what are we to do?

Dr. Ostrom’s work didn’t stop with poking holes in standard approaches. It also identified the markers of successful groups – these makers came to be known as ‘Ostrom’s 8 Core Design Principles (CDP’s)’.

Ostrom’s 8 Core Design Principles for successful cooperative groups. *For more on ‘layers’, see ‘Evolution at Multiple Levels’ in Chapter 1.

Take a minute to consider these principles, and whether they are in effect for important groups in your world. Is the group, its members, and its purpose clearly defined, and can these be articulated by all members? Are costs and benefits shared proportionally? Are important decisions made with input from everyone affected? When a member of the group violates an agreed-upon rule, is this evident to the group and quickly and fairly addressed? Are groups within the group given the autonomy to manage their own needs without interference from a body disconnected from their needs and function? Are these CDP’s applied to other groups that work closely with yours, or to groups upon which your group depends for collaboration and success?

“Large-scale cooperation is a more common need now than it’s ever been, and we haven’t yet caught up to that need in our group behaviors.”

If these Core Design Principles seem obvious, why aren’t they adopted more generally in large groups? Well, according to the evolution research conclusions described in the previous chapter, humans have evolved group-behaviors largely in a context of operating within small groups. It’s a relatively recent development that groups have had to work closely with other groups, and that identifiable groups have become so large that many members don’t know each other despite the need to cooperate closely. The push-and-pull between individual- or small-group needs, versus the needs of a larger whole, are at the core of the problem of lacking cooperation at large (national, global) scales. In short – large-scale cooperation is a more common need now than it’s ever been, and we haven’t yet caught up to that need in our group behaviors.

The Rise of Homo Economicus

This idea of The Tragedy of the Commons has ultimately come to dominate considerations of human nature. The personification of this idea has been labeled as Homo Economicus – the economic human, whose focus is solely on satisfying their own self-interests without consideration of how their actions will impact the larger community.

“If we see others as exclusively self-interested, we naturally act to protect ourselves and act in our own interests.” 

The authors of this book hypothesize that the prevalence of this vision of human nature has had its own impact on human behavior, in detrimental ways. Their hypothesis is articulated in this quote from the book: “If we see others as exclusively self-interested, we naturally act to protect ourselves and act in our own interests.” This assumption – that others are predominantly self-interested and will act accordingly, to the detriment of others – makes us as individuals more self-interested as a function of our buy-in with this view of human nature. The result is that people view others as selfish; don’t get as involved in communities (meetings, voting, volunteering); feel they don’t fit into society; and are more likely to be alienated socially. (For peer-reviewed research supporting this hypothesis, please check out the book!)

The Modern Commons: Anything but a Tragedy

Recognizing the inherent problems with top-down governance and free-market rule, Dr. Ostrom’s work heavily emphasized the empowerment of small groups, with the power to govern and regulate given over to those who a) know best the needs of the group and b) are in a position to directly manage it.

Examples of this type of group design include: 

  • community gardens and tool-libraries; 
  • microlending facilities; 
  • crowd-sourcing platforms (Uber and Lyft, AirBnB and VRBO and Couchsurfing, GoFundMe); 
  • open-access journals; 
  • community land-trusts;
  • neighborhood-managed public buildings; 
  • mutual aid networks; 
  • peer-to-peer universities; and 
  • open-source programming platforms (Android, Linux). 

What makes these efforts successful?

  1. Balance of self-interests and collective-interests – individuals are empowered within the context of a collective purpose/vision
  2. Emphasis on ongoing relationships, versus single transactions
  3. Systems are adaptive to local contexts and needs
  4. Optimized to local and global scales

In Conclusion: Prosocial as Applied Cultural Evolution

The notion of Homo Economicus moves us away from cooperative groups, and toward self-interested individualistic behavior. Challenging this shift will require creating constructs and conditions in which altruism can thrive. Each group or organization established with effective consideration of the 8 CDP’s constitutes a small-scale Major Evolutionary Transition, and shifts the balance in the direction of a more cooperative, effective and equitable world.

Want to learn more?

Check out 

In Chapter 3, we’ll dig further into the Core Design Principles, and consider them as a framework to apply to creating effective groups or improving existing ones.

Also, for an intensive workshop-style training, please check out our event with Dr. Thomas Szabo and Dr. Darnell Lattal, set for January, 2020 near Seattle, WA. Tom was a student in Steve Hayes’ lab when Prosocial emerged and has been conducting Prosocial workshops for ten years. Darnell is former president of Aubrey Daniels International, one of the foremost Organizational Behavior Management firms in the world. She has been practicing for over 40 years.

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