I came across a great article from NPR that discusses the role that human evolution plays in fostering tighter and more effective communities. Basically the story poses the question: as we evolve as human beings, do we become more socially-oriented– more other-focused?

According to evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson “evolutionary principles work not just at the genetic level, but also on the community level,” and “evolution is among the factors that drive community involvement.”

Prosociality, or prosocialness, is “the scientific term for any other-oriented attitude or behavior.” So the more you consider other people’s feelings, situations or the impact that your actions have on others, the more “prosocial” you are, and the more likely you are to be an active member in supporting a community of people. For example, a locavore, food bank volunteer, employee at the local women’s shelter would be highly prosocial. Someone who worked at pre-2008 Lehman Brothers? Just about at the bottom of the prosocial scale.

David Sloan Wilson decided to conduct an analysis of real-world prosociality in his hometown of Binghamton, NY by asking people the question: “I think it’s important to make my community a better place. Agree or Disagree?” And according to Wilson, those who agree strongly with his statement would be considered highly prosocial.

As a result of this analysis, Wilson distilled eight factors in a community that can enhance prosociality, listed here from the article:

  1. A strong sense of group identity, and a strong sense of what the group is about. If you don’t think of yourself as a group, and if you don’t know what the purpose of the group is, then it’s unlikely to function well as a group.
  2. Proportional costs and benefits. It cannot be the case that some people do all the work, and other people get the benefits. That’s not sustaining over the long term.
  3. Consensus decision-making. People hate being told what to do, but they’ll work hard for a decision that they agree upon.
  4. Monitoring. Most people want to cooperate but there’s always a temptation to slack a little bit. And then a few people are going to actively to game the system. So unless you can monitor good behavior, forget about it.
  5. Graduated sanctions. If somebody does misbehave, you don’t bring the hammer down. You remind them in a nice and friendly fashion, and that keeps them in solid citizen mode. At the same time, you do need to be prepared to escalate in those rare cases, when necessary.
  6.  A fast, fair conflict resolution. If there is a conflict, it needs to be resolved in a fast and fair fashion, in a manner that’s regarded as fair by all parties.
  7. Autonomy – for a group to do these things, they have to have the authority to manage their own affairs.
  8.  In a large society consisting of many groups, those groups have to be put together using those same principles. That’s called polycentric governance, a very important concept which emerged from political science, but now has a more genuine evolutionary formulation.

I’d like to look a bit closer at these, because they apply very closely to certain important themes in communication studies and communications philosophy. Hidden among these prosociality factors, two very important names leap to mind for me: Geert Hoftsede, and Michel Foucault.

Geert Hofstede, for those who don’t know him, basically invented a system of analyzing differences at the national level behind human interactions, an index of the differences between people from different countries, using four indicators, or what he called “anthropological problem areas”: “ways of coping with inequality, ways of coping with uncertainty, the relationship of the individual with her or his primary group, and the emotional implications of having been born as a girl or as a boy.”

Geert Hofstede

These became the Hofstede dimensions of  national culture: Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Individualism versus Collectivism, and Masculinity versus Femininity.

Ok, Jess, why in the hell is this relevant to these factors that enhance prosociality? Well, because Wilson is basically looking at the same thing but on a micro-scale, in smaller communities. Let’s take #1, the need for the group to understand its identity, its raison d’etre. This factor relates directly to what Hofstede termed “uncertainty avoidance,” which “deals with a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity and indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations.”

On the scale that Hofstede invented, “Uncertainty avoiding cultures try to minimize the possibility of such situations by strict laws and rules, safety and security measures, and on the philosophical and religious level by a belief in absolute Truth:  “there can only be one Truth and we have it”. People in uncertainty avoiding countries are also more emotional, and motivated by inner nervous energy. The opposite type, uncertainty accepting cultures, are more tolerant of opinions different from what they are used to; they try to have as few rules as possible, and on the philosophical and religious level they are relativist and allow many currents to flow side by side.”

In other words, communities that are “uncertainty avoiding” cultures who have an agreement about why they have been formed are more prosocial toward others in their communities, yet Hofstede would argue that “uncertainty avoiding communities,” or more “prosocial communities” are often more hostile and unsocial toward groups not a part of their communities.

Coming to #2, proportional costs and benefits, and relatedly, graduated sanctions, because they both relate to equality, power and punishment, Hoftsede looked carefully at the dimension of “power distance,” or “the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” For Hofstede, “power distance” was an index measurement of “inequality defined from below, not from above.”

His research suggested that “ a society’s level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders,” which is to say that everyone agreed that there were discrepancies in power. This relates directly to Wilson’s analysis that one important factor of prosociality is “it cannot be the case that some people do all the work, and other people get the benefits.” Of course some people cannot do all the work, but Hoftsede argued that every society understood that some people will do more than their fair share of the work, and some will reap greater benefits than others.

Of course, the infamous Michel Foucault factors in here as well, in #2 as well as in #4 (Monitoring)  and #5 (Graduated Sanctions).

Michel Foucault

Foucault, for those who are unfamiliar, was best known for his  studies of modern society and its institutions, namely psychiatry, medicine, human sciences and the prison and punishment systems. In his tome Discipline and Punish, he examined “technologies of punishment,” monarchical punishment, and disciplinary punishment. In the latter, which Foucault determined was the more modern take on societal and systematic punishment, punishment is left to “professionals” (psychologists, programme facilitators, parole officers, etc.) to dole out in a demonstration of their power over the prisoner. Foucault believed that disciplinary punishment led to “self-policing by the populace as opposed to brutal displays of authority from the Monarchical period.” He also retrieved from historical obscurity Jeremy Bentham’s concept of a modern architectural structure for prisons called the Panopticon, in which “a single guard can watch over many prisoners while the guard remains unseen,” and “where visibility is a trap.”

#7 brings us back to Hofstede, with its mention of Autonomy. Why is autonomy important to facilitating a prosocial human being? Wilson believe it is because “for a group to do these things, they have to have the authority to manage their own affairs.” Yet Hofstede measured individuality as part of his scale as a contrast with collectivism. He felt that “On the individualist side we find societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after her/himself and her/his immediate family. On the collectivist side, we find societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) which continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.” So on that point, again, they differ.

I have prattled on a bit too long on this entry, but the point is that what makes us, as human beings with free will and the ability to operate autonomously and individually, have the seemingly built-in desire to commune with others and cooperate to enhance our own lives? What Wilson was studying in Binghamton, NY is what Hoftsede was examining at the international state level, and what Foucault was looking deeply into at the human soul level. Yet still, we have no definitive answer.

On my end, I just though it was interesting that as each of us grabs hold of new technologies, and read reports of how those technologies are actively distancing us from our ancient proclivity toward social interactions with others, social scientists like Wilson claim that it’s possible we are actually evolving to be more selfless, to be more involved with our own communities.

So what do you think? Are we becoming more prosocial, or less?

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