A Short Introduction to the Ideas and Process Behind Prosocial

Paul Atkins
Learning Prosocial
Published in
12 min readJun 7, 2021


Prosocial is four things: an integrated theory of change, a practical process, a research agenda and a growing community of practitioners. In this article, we will mostly focus on the former two of these, Prosocial’s perspective upon cultural evolution and the practical tools it uses to help accelerate cultural evolution toward a more harmonious, cooperative and equitable world. All of these efforts are focused on our mission of “culturally evolving a world that works for all.”

Prosocial as an Integrated Theory of Change

Prosocial draws upon three main bodies of work: multilevel selection (MLS) theory, Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize-winning work on the commons, and Contextual Behavioral Science.

Multi-level Selection theory and evidence (MLS)

At a broad level, Prosocial takes from evolutionary theory the idea that everything (including group behaviour) is the way it is because of the systems of which it is a part. We see our thinking as deeply consistent with worldviews such as those generally adopted by first nations’ peoples, that everything is in an unfolding relationship. As such, sustainable change does not happen through force but by changing the contexts that reinforce some behaviours and not others.

One practical implication of this worldview is that we must necessarily take care of the needs of all levels of human systems. Lower levels are less complex but more fundamental, higher levels have more complexity and a bigger repertoire of behaviour, but they are also more fragile. An individual can undermine a group, and one group can undermine the whole system. Put simply, unless we take care of the personal, it can undermine the collective, and to the extent that we fail to engage one group, we will undermine the network.

MLS theory also contributes the general idea of evolution as variation, selection and retention at multiple levels and in multiple streams including genetic, epigenetic, behavioural and cultural evolution. There is now a growing consensus that cooperation is at least as strong a force in evolution as competition, and selection does not just occur at the level of the individual. More cooperative groups are more likely to succeed and spread their practices than less cooperative groups. According to MLS, this creates a selection pressure for altruism provided that the conditions are right.

We see the world in process terms. From our perspective, it is groups all the way up and down. Even an ‘individual’ is not in any way indivisible (the root meaning of the word). Indeed, on average only 43% of the cells within and upon our bodies are actually human. We are already a group not just of diverse organisms but also diverse impulses and experiences. And our practical focus on creating behavioral change means that we must pay close attention to many levels of organization from small groups, to organizations, to local regions, nations and whole cultures for example.

If we are to create a world that works for all, we believe we need a cultural inheritance system that manages all three ingredients of an evolutionary process:

1. Establishing targets of selection that align with prosocial goals.

2. Orienting variation around the targets.

3. Replicating and retaining best practices, realizing that what works in one context might well need to be modified to work in other contexts.

This is what it means to become “wise managers of cultural evolution” at any scale and for any topic area. We call this the “Third Way” of positive social change, which provides a paradigmatic alternative to the two dominant narratives of social change: laissez-faire and centralized planning¹. Consistent with our “Third Way” emphasis, we see a primary role of Prosocial as being to help create a world where there are better alternatives than just markets and states for coordinating action while still preserving individual autonomy and freedoms. True to our multilevel focus, we combine a “bottom-up” approach of working with small functionally-oriented groups with an autonomy-supportive “top-down” approach of working with large organizations. Our top-down approach does not take the form of centralized planning, which imposes itself on lower-level entities (“power-over”), but rather a collaboration with lower-level entities (“power-with”).

The Nobel Prize-winning work of Elinor Ostrom

Ostrom’s work on the commons provides an insight into the conditions that are generally supportive of group-level selection. A political scientist by training, she shared a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for work exploring “The Tragedy of the Commons” and elaborating the principles of how communities can be more or less successful managing common-pool resources. She developed 8 design principles that were then elaborated by Atkins, Wilson and Hayes (2019) as follows:

1. Shared 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 (according to principles 1–6)

8. Collaborative relations with other groups (using principles 1–7)

These 8 core design principles describe the conditions needed to suppress disruptive competition among individuals within groups, so that the group becomes the primary unit of selection. More colloquially, we can understand these 8 design principles, when implemented effectively in a group, as supporting action on behalf of the group rather than on behalf of the individual.

These principles are almost always accepted as logical and desirable by groups. But of course, there is a big gap between knowing something and being able to implement it in the reality of the world. That is where we turn to the psychology of behavior change, specifically Contextual Behavioral Science.

Contextual Behavioral Science (CBS)²

The final core body of theory, evidence, and practice informing Prosocial is Contextual Behavioral Science (CBS). CBS aims to predict and influence human behaviour in the context of everyday life. It draws upon the traditions of Pragmatism, Behaviorism, Cognitive and Mindfulness training, and the population-level disciplines of Prevention Science and Public Health. See Wilson and Hayes (2018) for a recent volume that integrates CBS and Evolutionary Science.

CBS is a pragmatic approach to behaviour change built upon a view of the mind as an evolved phenomenon based on the behaviour of relating one thing to another. Put simply, our sense of self as distinct from others, and our capacity to think and speak has evolved during our lifespans with the acquisition of language which is then taken inside as thought. Language, at its core, is relational. The earliest relations we learn are identity or sameness. The word ‘cat’ is in some way equivalent to an actual cat in the world. From this simple relation of coordination, we begin to learn other, more complex relations such as opposition, distinction, comparison, causal (if-then), hierarchical (e.g. part-whole relations), and, the most complex of all, deictic (words that depend on the context in which they are used) relations that take our own point of view as a referent (e.g. I versus you, here versus there and now versus then). These latter deictic relations are the basis of the formation of a sense of self as a point of view that remains constant in relation to the world. The fact that this is an enormously complex skill to learn is evidenced by the fact that perspective-taking ability continues to develop through a child’s teens and even into adulthood.

So what does all this have to do with Prosocial? CBS provides a naturalistic way of understanding how evolution can occur within both our individual symbolic systems and also at a cultural level. Critically, Relational Frame Theory (the part of CBS that articulates how the mind evolves both phylogenetically and ontogenetically), sees language as behaving rather than representing. We learn to correctly respond to the statement “please pass me the lemon” because it is socially useful, just as it is socially useful to be able to discriminate what “I” want from what “you” want. If we are ever to consciously evolve, and in particular if we are to become more skilled at finding shared purpose and identity, we must become more skilled at noticing the ways in which we are relating one event to another in the world. At a societal level, such relational framing of the world is at the heart of such relating as ‘us’=good/right and ‘them’=bad. At a personal level, beginning to build greater awareness of the ways in which relating works provides greater psychological flexibility to step back and witness a shift from “I am angry’ to “I notice I am angry” or even “I notice I am having the experience of being angry”, thereby providing more choice points to change one’s automatic responding to such an experience.

Psychological flexibility emerges from seeing relational framing in process. Put simply, when we learn to appreciate that the constructed, relational world is not the same as the actual world of direct contingencies, we come to have greater control over our perceiving and we are better placed to choose our actions to create greater harmony and purposeful cooperation toward shared goals.

Thus, Prosocial emphasizes both the interior and exterior perspectives of experience. We are deeply interested in evolution occurring in both awareness and behaviour. By articulating what ‘awareness’ is (i.e. relating behaviour) we can approach the evolution of awareness in a naturalistic manner. Furthermore, we are in a position to relate awareness directly to observed behaviour, which in turn can be related to individual and group goals such as wellbeing and collaboration.

So far, we have focused on Prosocial as an integrated theory of change. This all brings us to the second aspect of Prosocial that we wish to discuss, the practice of Prosocial.

The Prosocial ARC Process: Prosocial in practice.

The Prosocial ARC Process is a method for helping any group, anywhere in the world, work better together. It is a unique, practical, applied, behavioural approach that contributes to a significant worldwide research effort using evolutionary theory as a unifying theoretical framework.

ARC teaches us how to develop and act on our collective consciousness with purpose, which in our view is a function of three considerations:

1. Awareness of our internal thoughts & experiences

2. The quality of our Relationships

3. The Cultural agreements we create

The Prosocial ARC Process gathers awareness of our internal experiences, the quality of our relationships, and the cultural norms we create and agree on into a flexible framework that can be used to help groups improve collaboration and cooperation in different contexts. These tools help people identify and map their interests, build psychological flexibility, and set goals within a scientific framework that can be measured over time.

In practice, the application of Prosocial involves a sequence of activities designed to surface, clarify and integrate individual and collective interests. We see interests as the ‘symbotype’ (analogous to the genotype) of cultural evolution. This process tends to succeed when it is possible to build a culture of clear focus on purpose throughout a group at every level.

Key phases in the Prosocial ARC process typically include:

1. Initial trust-building, purpose definition and communication skills training

2. Stakeholder mapping: whose interests need to be considered, who is ‘in’ the focal group of interest

3. Exploring individual interests and values in the system using the Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT) Matrix . This process is described further below but for this audience can be considered as reporting out both the internal experience and the external behaviour of the individual.

4. Exploring collective interests and behaviours using the collective ACT matrix: Mapping new emergent collective interests and purposes as part of the group.

5. Exploration of the Core Design Principles (CDP’s) presented above to create agreements that balance and integrate self and collective interests in processes such as decision making, performance feedback, conflict resolution and leadership.

6. Action planning and goal setting: refining the products of the work with the aforementioned tools to create either a) specific, measurable goals with accountabilities and action steps, or where there is too much uncertainty for such goal-setting, b) pilot processes that can be used to try out potential interventions in a low risk, rapidly changeable environment.

7. Evaluation tools to measure change.

These processes can be flexibly applied in different orders depending upon needs. For example, while it makes sense to include the individual ACT matrix in relatively new groups or groups in conflict, other more established or stable contexts may call for initial exploration of the CDP’s with a focus on implementation and working together rather than integrating individual interests.

Since the ACT Matrix is currently a core part of the Prosocial ARC process, we will describe it in a little more detail here. The ACT Matrix consists of a 2 * 2 matrix and its intent is to act as a lens upon the world. It captures two main distinctions. First, the distinction between internal (private e.g. thoughts, feelings, imagery and so on) and external (public) behaviour. The second axis consists of a toward and an away pole, with the toward pole representing the processes of attraction, vitality and expansion, while the away pole represents the processes of avoidance and contraction. Technically speaking and from a behavioural perspective, the toward side maps processes of positive reinforcement while the away side maps processes of negative reinforcement. Figure 1, below, provides an example of an individual ACT Matrix, complete with an example of the kind of questions one might use to experientially reflect within each quadrant.

Example of an individual ACT Matrix

The ACT matrix in Figure 1 is designed for use with individuals. As our intent is to map, balance and integrate multiple levels of interest in the system, we find it helpful to sequentially explore interests at different levels. A similar process can be used to explore the core design principles described above but at the collective level. For example, the matrix can be adapted to explore such questions as “What matters most to us about being a group? What is our shared purpose? What are our shared values” (CDP1 Shared Identity and Purpose) or, “What matters most to us about fair and inclusive decision making?” (CDP3 Fair and Inclusive Decision Making). The matrix can also be used in a way that is more situated in a particular context. For example, if the group Matrix focus was brought to bear on CDP4 (Monitoring of Agreed Behaviors) , the question in the top right quadrant might read something like: “What values do we, as a group, most want to demonstrate in the way we track agreed-upon group-behaviours, during our response to the global pandemic?”

While the above text describes some of the key steps of Prosocial, it is somewhat more difficult to describe the way it is typically facilitated. Throughout this process we are making space for the many ways that people construct and react to their experience, consciously working with acknowledging and incorporating the diversity of perspectives people bring to experience. We teach a form of open, non-judgmental listening that allows people to hear alternative perspectives in others but also in the different parts of themselves — the parts that long for something bigger than themselves and the parts that are fearful and self-protective.

The Prosocial ARC process can thus be understood as seeking to create better conversations about purpose, in the service of creating more “power-with” rather than “power-over” cultures. That is, cultures where individual self-determination and autonomy is respected but in the context of group thriving and effectiveness. Prosocial helps people connect with what really matters to them, which for humans is inevitably social, and to effectively unhook from rigid assumptions, labelling and habitual patterns of responding to create new patterns of high-quality relationships, more open conversations, and implementing agreements more effectively. Further detail regarding the Prosocial ARC process is provided in Appendix 2 below. For a book-length treatment, please see Atkins et al., (2019).

Prosocial is a Research Agenda

Prosocial World has secured more than USD300K in research funding to date and is in the process of applying for millions more. While we have extremely strong evidence for each of the components of Prosocial (including a Nobel prize and over 600 randomized controlled trials supporting the effectiveness of Acceptance and Commitment Training), the evidence for Prosocial as a package is only at its earliest stages. In addition to forming specialist circles focused on areas of application such as schools, families, business and global networks, we are forming a research circle of people interested in prosocial behaviour. Our research agenda is described in more detail in Appendix 3 below.

Prosocial is a Growing Community of Practitioners

Finally, as a community, we have trained nearly 600 facilitators in 35 countries. One of the reasons why we think this model is proving successful is because we are keen to collaborate with partners to help further their aims and co-design new approaches, rather than seeking to apply the model to every situation.

Prosocial Facilitators across the globe.

[1] This theme is explored in detail in a series of print conversations and podcasts on PW’s online magazine This View of Life titled Evolution, Complexity, and the Third Way of Entrepreneurship

[2] Contextual Behavioral Science has its roots in the tradition of Pragmatism, including figures such as William James, John Dewey, and B.F. Skinner. It is formulated from a modern evolutionary perspective in the book Evolution and Contextual Behavioral Science: An Integrated framework for Understanding, Predicting, and Influencing Human Behavior.



Paul Atkins
Learning Prosocial

I research and write about creating greater collaboration and harmony in the world. I am co-founder of www.prosocial.world and author of the book “Prosocial”.