In 1990 Elinor Ostrom published “Governing the Commons” in which she challenged the prevailing wisdom that top-down and/or market-based approaches were necessary for sustainably managing environmental resources. As a third option, Ostrom proposed the viability of community-based common-pool resource (CPR) management, and stipulated that such management was more likely to be sustainable when certain institutional design principles were met. Examples of these design principles include strong rules regarding group membership, monitoring social behavior, proportionality of costs incurred and benefits received, graduated sanctions, and conflict resolution mechanisms. The principles have since become a core part of the theory of CPR management. In this article we propose a generalization of this theory in two regards. First, we describe how the principles are consonant with evolutionary theory, specifically multilevel selection theory. Second, we demonstrate through several case studies that the principles also have potential for explaining the success or failure of many types of social groups.
Multilevel selection theory emphasizes the evolutionary conflicts that inevitably arise between levels of social and biological organization. For example, traits and behaviors that favor the fitness of an individual within a group (such as free-riding or exhausting a resource) will tend to disfavor the fitness of the group of which that individual is a member, and vice versa. Whether or not pro-social traits evolve depends on whether group-level or individual-level selection dominates, and this in turn depends on several other conditions, such as the amount of between-group variation relative to within-group variation. For example, if there is a large difference between groups and little difference between individuals within groups, then group-level selection may predominate and favor individual-level traits that favor the fitness of groups. It is these conditions where the design principles presented by Ostrom overlap synergistically with evolutionary theory. In short, the institutional design principles present a set of conditions that favor pro-social traits and encourage cooperation and the welfare of the group, rather than the individual. There is a striking correspondence between the design principles and the conditions that caused us to evolve into such a cooperative species in the first place.
This potential generality of the design principles suggests that they could be applied to improve the performance of many social groups. With this in mind, we explore several case studies to demonstrate this applicability. The first three case studies occur in educational contexts and include a behavioral intervention known as the good behavior game, the well-known Sudbury Valley School (http://www.sudval.org), and a program for at-risk 9th and 10th grade high school students called the Regent Academy. In each case, we find that (1) group performance correlates with compliance with the design principles, and (2) auxiliary design principles are needed in order to fully explain the variation in the level of success across groups. In addition, we present two additional case studies of neighborhood-based groups, and reach similar conclusions. We conclude from these preliminary findings that an activist research program dedicated to examining and improving the performance of social groups holds much promise.