What is ProSocial teaming?

This is the first 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.

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.

What is this book about?

Human evolution made us great at collaborating in small groups, but the demands of today’s interconnected world are changing.

People are great naturally at working together – in relatively small groups. When the group becomes larger, cooperation is much harder, and conflict more common. The ProSocial teaming model bridges this gap between small- and larger-groups, and provides us with a system for group cooperation at any scale.

The ProSocial model approaches improving the functioning of groups on three fronts: 

  • First, it builds a sense of community (a sense of ‘us’), which supersedes self-interest an defines the purpose of the group.
  • Second, it helps members to balance individual interests with the interests of the group and its purpose, so that neither need is compromised.
  • Third, ProSocial provides principles and practices for building cooperation across groups – that is, between one group and another. This is the foundation for ‘scaling up’ the size of effective, collaborative groups.

You can divide this book into two parts: First, the authors want to educate readers on the Prosocial process, clarify why people act as they do when in groups, and set the scientific foundations on which the process is built. Second, they share tools for the reader to start their own Prosocial process. In this way, it’s not just an ‘interesting’ read – it’s very practical, by design, and written to and for people who want to implement it.

ProSocial takes what makes successful groups thrive, and places those principles in a system that can be replicated at any scale.

Want to learn more? My discussion of Chapter 1, covering the role of evolution in determining individual- and group- behavior, is now available. The rest of the book will be discussed in subsequent posts.

Also, for an intensive workshop-style training, please take a peek at 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 OBM firms in the world. She has been practicing for over 40 years.

ProSocial: A Case Study – Battling Ebola in Sierra Leone

Ebola prevalence in Sierra Leone and neighboring countries, when the ProSocial approach was applied to help slow the spread of the disease.

The ProSocial approach is designed as a functional, applied process for minimizing conflict and ensuring that groups are working together with their common goals in mind. This anecdote is one example of ProSocial at work in the world.

In 2014, Sierra Leone was a country still reeling from a decade-long civil war that left tens of thousands dead and many more with physical and emotional scars. In 2014, ebola spread from neighboring countries to Sierra Leone. The citizens there did not understand the nature of the condition – including, importantly, how it spread from one person to the next. 

When international aid workers came to contain the outbreak, they attempted the seemingly reasonable practices of quarantine, disposal of contaminated remains, etc. They tried to keep healthy residents from contact with the deceased, in order to prevent further spread of the disease. Not understanding the threat posed to their own health, the affected citizens were resistant to aid efforts, and often attacked their would-be helpers. 

Volunteers in one area of Sierra Leone, Bo, took a different approach. Beate Ebert and Hannah Bockarie were already working in Sierra Leone, helping citizens to cope with the effects of the recent civil war. As the ebola crisis spread, Commit and Act workers recognized another opportunity to help. They started with the recognition of fear in those people suffering from the threat of the outbreak. Instead of imposing their practices on the members of the community, they worked with those members to find a solution. Volunteers trained locals in their communities to work with their neighbors using Acceptance and Commitment Training, and worked with them to reach out to their community from within. The volunteers learned that paying respects to the passed loved ones was of great concern in that community, as was stopping the spread of the disease. They also learned that the community had a long-observed custom of honoring the dead which involved touching the remains, dressing and kissing them, which was contributing to the explosive spreading of the disease. In discussing this with the residents of Bo, they identified the behaviors that were important to the community, as well as the behaviors that interfered with the safety of the group. Using the Core Design Principles in the ProSocial teaming model, aid workers and local community members together focused on the common goals for the community to reach a solution.

Hannah Bockarie donning a protective suit to talk with a man who was quarantined with Ebola. This individual had wanted to leave quarantine and go home to his family. Hannah’s conversation with him helped him to identify how much he cared for his family as a value. In keeping with this value, he agreed to remain in quarantine until the doctors could clear him for safe return to his home.

The community members worked out a creative approach: they initiated a new practice of dressing the trunk of a banana tree in the clothes of the deceased, and using that as a stand-in with which the surviving friends and relatives could exercise their mourning practices. They held, kissed, perfumed, and buried the tree trunk as they would with the remains, enabling the community to adequately pay respects to ebola victims. In this way, the community was able to exercise their cultural practices around passed loved ones, without exposing the survivors to the ebola virus at its most contagious stage. Where Bo had been a region particularly hard-hit by the spread of ebola, this new community-developed practice brought infection rates to a much lower level than the surrounding communities where the practice had not been adopted.

New cases of Ebola were lowest in the Bo District, where Commit and Act’s Prosocial efforts led to the adoption of a culturally acceptable alternative to the laying on the hands with deceased loved ones.

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