Tag Archives: cooperation

Using evolution to improve neighborhoods: The Neighborhood Project

David Sloan Wilson is undertaking an interesting project to try to learn the rules for evolving cooperation while improving his community (Binghamton, NY), a city of 47,000 in upstate New York that has fallen on hard times with the industrial flight of corporate mainstays. A March 2011 Gallup poll found Binghamton to be one of the five least liked cities in the US.  His effort is change all that is called the Binghamton Neighborhood Project (BNP).  It raises all the usual interesting questions about being dispassionate and objective in one’s research, and not attempting to alter the very metrics one is measuring.

BNP has done interesting mapping work (relevant to those of you that are interested in doing the same thing in your areas). For example, students dropped lost letters in different parts of the community and measured the percentage that reached their destination.  They charted the density of Halloween and Christmas decorations as an indicator of community pride, participation, and goodwill.  And they mapped their data in interesting ways, using krig maps to show pro-social peaks as well, peaks.  [See: Wilson, D. S., O’Brien, D. T., & Sesma, A. (2009). Human Prosociality from an Evolutionary Perspective: Variation and Correlations on a City-wide Scale. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30: 190-200.]  [See great sample of 3-D visualization of crime data for San Francisco here.]

Efforts include: a design your own park effort, a Regents Academy for at-risk youth where students are incentivized for good behavior and cooperation, the Binghamton Religion and Spirituality Project to survey and map Binghamton’s religious diversity.

The Design Your Own Park initiative seeks to transform abandoned lots into community playgrounds. Groups submit ideas and the community votes on the idea the most like.  The United Way of Broom County helps secure funding for the transformation and community groups agree to maintain the park.  The goal is to foster parks throughout the city and there are 5 park projects underway including a BMX bike park and a dog park.

At Binghamton’s Regents Academy, a higher percentage of at-risk students took and passed state tests than in other Binghamton schools, but no formal assessment has been done of the school.  Moreover, at least as of June, the regime of rewards was still changing weekly and the principal, Miriam Purdy, while believing in the importance of the incentives, did not believe that the incentive program is about evolution.

The Religion and Spirituality Project is motivated by Wilson’s belief that religion can play a central role in producing community cohesion and giving residents a sense of life meaning.

Wilson believes that community residents (using his biological training) can behave either like water striders (which pursue their goals single mindedly, ignoring others) or wasps (which work together subconsciously for their collective good).  Pro-social groups can outcompete those lacking social cohesion, so he believes there is an evolutionary element to encouraging prosocial behavior.  He believes the seven key elements to more effective collective efforts are: 1) a strong sense of group identity; 2) proportional costs and benefits for all residents; 3) consensus decision-making; 4) monitoring those who are anti-social; 5) providing graduated sanctions (ranging from minor slaps on the wrist to more serious sanctions for chronic infringers); 6) fast, fair conflict resolution system; and 7) autonomy/authority, nested within polycentric governance (which links these localized efforts together).  Above and beyond these factors, he believes that residents need lots of practice at cooperating, and often our affluence buys us out of community, in the same way that David Brooks refers to the Haimish line.

Listen to NPR story ‘Can Evolution Breed Better Communities?

Interesting Nature story (9 June 2011) on this called “Darwin’s City

Read “The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time”; excerpt available here.


Social capital games

The New York Times Science Times section on Tuesday had an article discussing why real life couldn’t be as engaging as games.  One section referred to games designed by researchers to spark cooperative behavior or  get people to compete on being most helpful.


…Dr. [Jane] McGonigal…has designed Cruel 2 B Kind, a game in which players advance by being nice to strangers in public places, and which has been played in more than 50 cities on four continents.

She and her husband are among the avid players of Chorewars, an online game in which they earn real rewards (like the privilege of choosing the music for their next car ride) by doing chores at their apartment in San Francisco. Cleaning the bathroom is worth so many points that she has sometimes hid the toilet brush to prevent him from getting too far ahead.

Other people, working through a “microvolunteering” Web site called Sparked, are using a smartphone app undertake quests for nonprofit groups like First Aid Corps, which is compiling a worldwide map of the locations of defibrillators available for cardiac emergencies. Instead of looking for magical healing potions in virtual worlds, these players scour buildings for defibrillators that haven’t been cataloged yet. If that defibrillator later helps save someone’s life, the player’s online glory increases (along with the sense of fiero).

[Fiero comes from Italian “pride” and refers to when the gamer lifts both arms above his/her head in triumph.]

Cruel 2 B Kind is interesting.  It takes place in a defined real world environment: e.g., it could be Central Park from 5-6 on 12/10/2010.  No one knows who is playing and who isn’t but all players have to remain in the open in that location for the entire duration.  Each player is randomly assigned a fatal weakness from a list of possibilities (e.g., being serenaded, being complimented, being cheered on). In order to slay your opponent, you have to engage in these acts of kindness frequently, willing to have complete strangers (not playing the game) be “collateral damage” in your effort to slay your fellow gamers. The result is a war of kindness within the “arena”.

Read John Tierney, “On a Hunt for What Makes Gamers Keep Gaming” (New York Times, Dec. 7, 2010)

See earlier blog post on The Extraordinaries (now renamed as Sparked)  and Thin-Slice Volunteering.

Socializing expands brain size?

Flickr photo by taod

This is by no means an overnight phenomenon.

Scholars at Oxford have refuted the notion that all mammals over time developed larger brains.  Instead Dr. Susanne Shultz and Prof. Robin Dunbar found over a span of 60 million years that more social creatures, among them humans, had the most rapidly expanding brain sizes to cope with the complexity of collaboration, social norms and coordination.

“The research team analysed available data on the brain size and body size of more than 500 species of living and fossilised mammals. It found that the brains of monkeys grew the most over time, followed by horses, dolphins, camels and dogs. The study shows that groups of mammals with relatively bigger brains tend to live in stable social groups. The brains of more solitary mammals, such as cats, deer and rhino, grew much more slowly during the same period.”

They noted that the fact that cats’ brains did not expand while dogs’ and horses’ brains did, can be accounted for by the far more solitary lives that cats lead in relation to dogs and horses, which interact far more with humans.

Obviously, since these evolutionary anthropologists couldn’t go back in time to distinguish social cavemen from more solitary cavemen, it is impossible to tell whether the expansion of brain size was related to the average levels of socialization of a species or whether this same pattern would have held true at the individual level: with offspring of more social parents having larger brains than offspring of less social humans.

Nonetheless, food for thought…  The implication: get out and socialize and help our species to continue to grow our average brain size, although the results may not be noticeable within your lifetime.

See “Socialising led to bigger brains in some mammals

The study is called “Encephalization is not a universal macroevolutionary phenomenon in mammals but is associated with sociality” (PNAS Journal, November 30, 2010, by Susanne Shultz and Robin Dunbar).  Abstract here.

Shultz and Dunbar’s center, Oxford University’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, is here.

Intergenerational equity

Flickr Photo by Baloozer

David Willets, British MP and advisor on community issues to the British heir apparent David Cameron, has a nice piece in the February Prospect magazine called “The Spirit of Cooperation.”

He outlines some of the arguments in his forthcoming The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took their Children’s Future—and Why They Should Give it Back, a book rich with anecdotes and interesting examples of co-operation and social evolution.

Willets’ article highlights how humans are born to cooperate (“the selfish gene”), how these instincts are usually stronger for closer relatives, how cooperation does or doesn’t occur in Prisoner’s Dilemma Games, and even how we can evolve to reciprocal altruism as seen in World War I trenches with the Christmas Truce or snipers on both side  intentionally shooting to miss.

Willetts strives to figure out how to make such reciprocity flourish: the answer to Willetts is small-scale interactions among non-state institutions, and punishing defectors and bad actors.  The role for the state, per Willetts, is “drystone walling — where individual elements are held together by an overall structure” rather than the state  trying expressly to change social behavior.  He also knocks the Left for failing to realize the importance of early childhood experiences in families in developing reciprocity.

Willetts’ major fear is that Britain will become divided by age. “In the worry about the shift of resources from the increasingly workless working class to the increasingly unleisured leisure class” (as the Economist puts it), too many resources have been devoted to what in the US we refer to as Boomers and not enough to their children.

He advocates that we should ‘nudge’ behavior, and urge this Boomer generation to treat future generations generously, the way that past generations treated them.  He uses this notion of intergenerational equity to drive policy goals of cutting the deficit, spurring more inter-generational contact, raising the age for retirement and pensions, getting Boomers to bear their share of climate change.  He even alludes, by quoting a bumper sticker, to the fact that this might ultimately help Boomers themselves: “Be nice to your kids; they choose your nursing home.”

He advocates that David Cameron’s government, through its focus on social responsibility, enforce this inter-generational contract, even if some Conservatives don’t like the concept of a social contract.

For far too many in society, their inter-generational concerns are restricted to their children and grandchildren; Willetts, falling back on Rawlsian “veil of ignorance”, argues that we owe it to future generations (regardless of whether they are related to us or not) to start from a relatively equal position.  It’s an intriguing argument, although if we owe this intergenerational equity to strangers in our own country, why don’t we owe this equity to strangers in Zimbabwe or Sudan.  Why should a starting point be more equalized for British citizens, but still have them start out hundreds of times more advantaged than children in the most destitute places on earth.

Read the Prospect’s interesting “The Spirit of Cooperation” or read the Economist’s review of Willet’s’ new book.