David Sloan Wilson:
"What kicked me out of the Ivory Tower was my desire to study the eternal contest between prosocial behaviors (call them High-Pro) and more self-oriented behaviors (call them Low-Pro) playing out in the real world. Working with the superintendent of the Binghamton City School District, a wonderful woman named Peggy Wozniak, I was able to measure individual differences in prosociality in several thousand high school students. I was also able to measure the social support that these students received from their families, neighborhoods, school, churches, and extracurricular activities. Finally, I was able to tag all of this information to the residential location of the students, sticking to rigorous human subject research protocols of course.
Unsurprisingly, individual differences in prosociality resembled a bell-shaped curve, with a few extremely High-Pros, a few extremely Low-Pros, and most people in between. The most important result of the study was a high correlation (about 0.7) between the prosociality of the individual and the prosociality of the individual’s social environment. Very simply, those who gave also tended to receive, which is the basic requirement for prosocial behaviors to survive in a Darwinian world.
As with all statistical correlations, there were exceptions to the rule. Some people on the High-Pro side of the bell curve gave without getting and some on the Low-Pro side got without giving. However, the High-Pros were able to benefit from each other enough to offset the occasional depredation of Low-Pros. That was the meaning of the high correlation between the prosociality of the individual and the prosociality of the individual’s social environment.
Lest you think that Low-Pros are bad people, imagine that you are a High-Pro with the bad luck of being surrounded by Low-Pros. What are your options? First, you can try to leave if you can. Second, you can try to convert your Low-Pro partners into High-Pros. Third, you can defensively turn off your own prosociality, in which case you will become a Low-Pro, at least for the time being. Fourth, you can remain a High-Pro and suffer the consequences. While the low end of the bell curve might include some social predators, it also includes people who have defensively switched their prosociality to the “off” position under conditions that would probably make us do the same. Have sympathy for the Low-Pro. What’s needed for them and for everyone is to provide a social environment that makes it safe to be a High-Pro, which is exactly what PROSOCIAL strives to do.
The maps of the city of Binghamton that emerged from this research were riveting to the eye. They showed a mosaic of patches representing neighborhoods in which most of the students were High-Pro (dark) or Low-Pro (light).
Once I completed this first study I was hooked. Studying prosociality in the real world was all I wanted to do. I proudly called my new line of research the Binghamton Neighborhood Project. Then two things happened in rapid order. First, I began to meet other scientists who had been playing this game a lot longer than I had. Second, I had the opportunity to create a think tank that would enable me to play the game anywhere in the world, not just my hometown of Binghamton, New York.
The scientists I came to know included Tony Biglan, Steve Hayes, and Dennis Embry. They hailed from disciplines that I had never heard of before, such as Prevention Science and Contextual Behavioral Science. Whatever they called themselves, they and their colleagues were very good at “evolving” prosociality in the real world at scales ranging from individuals (e.g., psychotherapy), small groups (e.g., school classrooms), and large populations (e.g., the campaign against smoking). At first I wondered if I had anything to offer, but they were as excited by my evolutionary perspective as I was by their practical accomplishments. We began to refer to ourselves affectionately as The Four Amigos." (http://magazine.prosocialgroups.org/the-origins-of-prosocial/)