Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Value of Accommodation and Ingredients for a Pro-Social Environment

In section 2.12 of Natural Moralities, David Wong argues an important value for a moral society is "accommodation", which is "to be committed to supporting noncoercive and constructive relations with others although they have ethical beliefs that conflict with one's own."

This point made me recall this segment from a Krista Tippett interview (from her program On Being, distributed by American Public Media) that I heard this summer: (
Ms. Tippett: So what does that look like. Creating a highly pro-social environment, what are some of the components of that?

Dr. Wilson: OK. We have been able to derive a list of designed features that cause just about any group to function well, including a school group. This is based a lot on the work of Elinor Ostrom who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009. Her contribution was to show how groups of people attempting to manage their common resources, such as farmers or fishermen or forestry people managing forests, how they're capable of managing their affairs pretty well, but only if certain conditions are met. Those conditions are very conciliant with what we know from an evolutionary perspective about pro-sociality and cooperation.

So I'm going to reel off eight design features and then I'm going to add a couple of extra things to show you how we created a school program that works. Now as I'm listing these ingredients, ask yourself the question, how well does the typical school satisfy these ingredients, embody these design features, especially from the perspective of an at-risk student? OK?

Ingredient number one: There has to be a strong group identity and a sense of purpose for the group. So a person has to think that they're a member of a group and that group has to be a purpose that's clear to everyone. OK?

Number two: a proportional cost in benefits. It cannot be the case that some people do all the work and some people get all the benefits. There has to be some sense in which the benefits are scaled to what you do for the group. OK?

Number three: consensus decision-making. People hate being bossed around and told what to do, but they'll work hard to implement a consensus decision. Right there, ask yourself what the average at-risk kid thinks about whether they're being consulted about what they do in school.

Number four: monitoring. Most people are cooperative, but some people misbehave. Unless you can monitor that, then the group will not function well.

Number five: graduated sanctions. If someone does misbehave, you don't bring the hammer down immediately. You correct them in a nice friendly fashion, but you also must be prepared to escalate.

Number six: fast, fair conflict resolution. If there is a conflict, it must be resolved quickly and in a manner that's regarded as fair by all parties.

Number seven: local autonomy. In order for the group to do the previous things, they must have the ability to make their own decisions and to organize their group their way in order to make those decisions. There's another thing. If you look at the average school program, not only are the students not allowed to alter the routine, but even the teachers are not allowed even when they know it's not working.

Ms. Tippett: And the students are aware that the teachers are not allowed to alter their routine.

Dr. Wilson: Yeah. Finally number eight is called polycentric governance. When groups are nested within larger groups, then there must be coordination among groups which mirrors the same principles. Now there's two more principles that we added to this school group. The first was a safe and secure environment. Fear is good for helping you escape from a fearful situation over the short term. It's toxic over the long term. So therefore, if you don't feel safe and secure, if you're not basically in a playful, relaxed mood, you're not going to do the kind of learning that you need to do. And finally, learning in any species does not take place when all of the costs are in the present and all the benefits are in the future. So if you tell someone you'll get a good job if you slog four years through school …

Ms. Tippett: Right, or you'll get into college four years from now.

Dr. Wilson: Yeah. So there's a wonderful study by the psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who's best known for his work on "flow," peak psychological experience. In this study, he and his team followed a group of gifted high school students that were identified as gifted in the ninth grade, followed them through their high school and asked how many of them remained gifted by the 12th grade. What he discovered was, only the kids that enjoyed what they were doing on a day-to-day basis fulfilled their talents. So even the gifted kids had to have this short-term reward for what they were doing in order to realize the long-term reward. So if school isn't fun and something you want to go to on a day-to-day basis, then forget about it.
I think these ingredients for a pro-social environment have relevance to local, conference, and denominational church polity, as well as to political philosophy applied to other sorts of groups.

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