Helping each other to avoid and recover from disaster

Psychology professor publishes model about risk management, cooperation in small scale societies

May 27, 2021

What can we learn from developing societies around the world about mitigating risk and sharing resources during a disaster?

When disasters happen, we often have to rely on others to help us get through. In our modern world, many of us rely on commercial insurance that we buy through the market to manage our risk. But managing risk is an ancient human practice — one that has roots going far back in our evolutionary history. We can catch a glimpse of these fundamentally human risk management strategies by looking at small-scale societies around the world.  people of the Maasai tribe smiling and dressing for a celebration Members of the Maasai tribes in Africa prepare for a celebration. Photo by Bradford Zak, licensed by Unsplash Download Full Image

In a recent paper published by Associate Professor Athena Aktipis and Professor Lee Cronk from Rutgers in Nature Human Behavior, they explain how small-scale societies around the world pool risk, and they describe the seven principles that characterize successful risk pooling systems. In their new paper, “Design principles for risk-pooling systems,” Aktipis and Cronk show how these principles make it possible for people to help one another in times of disaster outside of commercial insurance or expectations that one will be paid back for help given. 

The authors were inspired by the Nobel Prize-winning research on resource pooling done by former ASU Research Professor Elinor Ostrom, who showed that in many societies around the world, people are able to avoid the tragedy of the commons when people follow eight design principles for how to collectively manage common-pool resources. The tragedy of the commons is a situation that when people have access to shared common resources, they tend to act selfishly and deplete those resources. In this paper, Aktipis and Cronk describe seven design principles that allow for greater resilience to disasters through helping others in times of need without requiring traditional “reciprocity” mechanisms. 

Risk management and resource pooling is a core component of commercial insurance and the current health care system employed around the world. Resource pooling is the act of a large group of people sharing resources like money for an eventual larger common goal or expense, similar to a monthly insurance premium or a homeowner’s association fee. Additionally, risk management, or the behaviors used to reduce risk, like wearing a seatbelt while driving, is part of any preparedness strategy such as the fight against COVID-19 and future pandemics.

“Humans have had to deal with risk throughout our whole evolutionary history, and we have a few different management strategies, but it really hasn’t been investigated from an evolutionary perspective. It is an unexplored aspect of human nature – how do we manage risk when things go wrong?” said Aktipis.

Aktipis and Cronk are principal investigators of the Human Generosity Project, where they conduct research on cooperation and systems among communities across the world, including the Osotua system of the Maasai tribes in Africa, Fijian fisher horticulturalists and American ranchers in the Southwest. In each of the 12 societies they have investigated over the last decade, they found consistent principles that were needed in order to have group success in times of tragedy and disaster.

The seven principles of successful risk pooling systems are:

  1. An agreement that the resources are for unpredictable events.
  2. That giving shouldn’t create an obligation for reparation.
  3. Participants shouldn’t be expected to help others until their own needs are met.
  4. Everyone agrees with what constitutes need.
  5. That resources are shared transparently to reduce cheating.
  6. Everyone has the choice about who to help.
  7. The systems are large enough to cover the scale of risks.

When these principles are met, resource pooling is effective and populations succeed more than in reparation-based systems.

“A lot of human risk strategies are really entwined with cultural norms, environment, communication and coordination among groups,” said Aktipis.  

When it comes to dealing with unpredictable and unexpected risks, people often help each other without expecting things in return, and often will only ask for help when they are actually in need.

“If we look across human society, that is just how people behave when there are these unpredictable and unexpected situations, like a pandemic,” said Aktipis.

The dominant model for helping among non-kin in evolutionary psychology has been account-keeping reciprocity, or the idea that when you share resources with someone else, you are keeping a record of those resources and expect repayment in some form in the future.

However, according to Aktipis, that isn’t the only way societal cooperation can be stable.

“If people’s fates are connected or there is interdependence for survival, we find that there are survival advantages to need-based transfer over the traditional model of reciprocity,” said Aktipis.

Expanding from small-scale societies to larger countries, the principles in the model still hold true.

One caveat, however, was that when the problem was something that was consistent and predictable — such as branding times in the ranching community — people were less likely to help without expecting something in return. If the situation was unpredictable, however, such as a hurricane or unexpected injury, those same communities would help without expecting to get paid back for that help.

“The principle that the scale of the network needs to be appropriate for the scale of the risks is a huge issue that we face today in our modern financial and insurance systems,” said Aktipis. “They are interdependent in a negative way – that when there is a problem we face systemic failure.”

Aktipis and Cronk argue that the pandemic highlighted the weaknesses in our risk management strategies, sharing an opportunity for us to shore up our vulnerabilities and improve our systems so they are better prepared for future disasters.

“We might be able to create Osotua-like need-based transfer relationships between not just people but also between institutions. And this could really help us to better manage risks in the future and to deal with the fallout that comes with unpredicted events,” said Aktipis. 

Robert Ewing

Marketing and Communications Manager, Department of Psychology


ASU launches water safety education program with Michael Phelps Foundation, Phoenix Children’s

May 27, 2021

A water safety education program to reduce child drowning injury and death is being launched this month by Arizona State University, the Michael Phelps Foundation, Phoenix Children’s Hospital and Phoenix Children’s Care Network. This public health partnership will focus on providing expert-driven educational intervention during well-child visits for children 1 to 4 years old.

“Drowning is the leading nonmedical cause of death for children ages 1–4 in the United States, with Arizona having the second highest drowning rate in the country,” said Professor Diana Bowman, who is associate dean for applied research and engagement at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU and is leading the initiative on behalf of ASU. “Since we first initiated an ASU water safety program in 2017, we have made strides in educating Arizonans on how to prevent childhood drowning, but so much more work can be done. ASU swimming Coach Bob Bowman smiles as he holds Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps' son, Boomer Phelps ASU swimming Coach Bob Bowman holds Boomer Phelps, son of Michael Phelps. ASU, Phoenix Children’s and the Michael Phelps Foundation are teaming up on a water safety education program aimed at preventing water-related injury and deaths in children 1 to 4 years old. Download Full Image

“By now bringing on board the Michael Phelps Foundation, we are deeply honored and encouraged by the many more ways we can make a difference in the future, thanks to their support and the collaboration of all of our partners."

“My sisters and I were first introduced to the pool for water safety, a fact that is often overshadowed by my accomplishments in competitive swimming,” said Michael Phelps, founder of the Michael Phelps Foundation. “The statistics surrounding accidental drowning are alarming, which is one of the reasons I started the foundation in the first place, and we want to be proactive in raising awareness and providing educational resources to families. As parents with three young boys and a pool at home, my wife, Nicole, and I want to encourage all families to incorporate water safety as part of their wellness development and/or routine.”

The program will engage pediatric primary care providers in the Phoenix Children’s Care Network to help highlight and educate families with drowning prevention curriculum that is tailored to the patient’s age and developmental stage. The goal is to empower physicians and nurses to engage in meaningful and concise conversations with caregivers about how children’s behaviors during developmental stages put them at a greater risk for drowning.

“Drowning prevention education is a critical ​and often overlooked part of preventative child health care at the primary care interface with caregivers,” said Dr. Roy Jedeikin, medical director of Phoenix Children’s Care Network. “This collaborative initiative with ASU further confirms the vital population health aspect of drowning prevention.”

Educational materials, including a poster on water safety featuring Bob Bowman, head coach of swimming and diving for Sun Devil Athletics at ASU and Michael Phelps Foundation board member, will share tips on reducing drowning risks, such as the importance of formal swimming lessons and supervising toddlers at all times regardless of swimming ability.

“Swimming is a learned skill and the more we can educate families about the importance of water safety instruction, the broader the impact we can have in helping to reduce accidental drownings,” said Bob Bowman. “Teaching critical skills and strategies can help save lives and have a significant impact on our communities.”

The Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation at ASU also has played an integral role in developing the program and educational materials. Judith Karshmer, dean of the college said, “The ability to seamlessly collaborate with colleges and units across the university is what makes ASU able to respond quickly to community needs and make an impact. In this case by bringing these wonderful partners together we’re able to improve health outcomes for children by doing our part to ensure they are safe when they play in or around water.”

Other program materials for pediatric primary care providers will include:

  • A one-hour provider curriculum and a follow-up provider touchstone presentation.
  • Free water safety kits.
  • A water safety poster for display in provider waiting rooms in English and Spanish.
  • Water safety handouts that align with developmental milestones in English and Spanish.
  • A provider social media toolkit.
  • Recorded webinars.

“As pediatricians, our ultimate goal is to help children grow and thrive in a safe environment,” said Dr. Christine Holmes of Desert Shores Pediatrics. “Of all the many things we help educate parents about to keep kids safe, water safety in our state is of utmost importance. This program is so impactful in saving children’s lives!”

A nexus between ASU Law’s Center for Public Health Law and Policy and its Allan “Bud” Selig Sports Law and Business program, the initiative is part of a larger research effort that the law school is undertaking to address water safety specifically, as well as injury prevention more broadly.

“ASU Law constantly strives to make a real-world impact in our community through initiatives like this that directly address pressing public challenges – in this case the health and safety of our children,” Bowman said.

To learn more about the program, visit

Julie Tenney

Director of Communications, Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law