Saturday, June 30, 2012

Big Think - Morals and Molecules: A Q&A with Paul Zak


From Big Think, here is a brief interview with Paul Zak, author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity. About the book:

The Moral Molecule: The Science Of What Makes Us Good Or Evil. Is morality universal? Why are men less faithful than women? Why do some businesses succeed while others collapse? If we have a natural impulse to empathise and care for each other, why are there psychopaths? Neuroscientist and economist Paul Zak has spent 10 years researching to answer these questions and discover the chemical driver of our behaviour. His research has led him from a 'vampire' wedding in Devon to the jungle of Papua New Guinea and from the US military to a Buddhist monastary. Detective story, adventure and scientific discovery rolled into one, The Moral Molecule is a brilliant read: compulsively entertaining and potentially life-changing.
  • 'Paul Zak tells the remarkable story of how he discovered and explored the biochemistry of sympathy, love and trust with the narrative skill of a novelist. Philosophy, economics and biology have rarely been so entertaining.' - Matt Ridley, author of Genome 
  • 'An ancient mammalian molecule prods us to bond with others. Paul Zak offers a most engaging account of this important discovery, bound to overthrow traditional thinking about human behavior, including economics and morality.' - Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy 
  • 'Paul Zak's investigations into the best things in life are inspired, rigorous, and tremendous fun. We need more daring economists like him.' - Tyler Cowen, author of The Great Stagnation and the forthcoming An Economist Gets Lunch
There a lot of "extras" at the site for the book, including a Connection Quotient self-test.


Morals and Molecules: A Q&A with Paul Zak


ZakI interviewed Paul Zak, founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, for the first time two years ago.  We met for a coffee at Neuroscience 2010, the largest neuroscience conference in the world—and before I could ask a single question, he told me, “I’m going to hug you when we’re done.  I hug everybody—it’s the best way to release oxytocin.”  He was true to his word.  Zak’s scientific quest is to understand what makes people trust one another.  Since our first meeting, that particular line of questioning has resulted in some unique research as well as his new book about oxytocin, The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity.

Q:  What inspired you to write The Moral Molecule?
Paul Zak:  There were two motivations.  The first part was that we learned in the 1990’s that personal trust is a strong predictor of what countries will be rich or poor.  High-trust countries tend to grow much more rapidly than low trust countries.  Trust really is a kind of economic lubricant, resulting in a government sector that works well, a social sector that works well and an economy that also works well.  And it occurred to me that no one really understood why anyone ever trusts anybody else.  It seemed like a really important question to answer.

The second, and perhaps more honest motivation, was that I was raised Catholic and was taught that only Catholics could be good, moral people.  And I listened to people say things like that and thought, “That doesn’t sound right to me.  What about Gandhi?  What about Buddha?”  And it made me very interested in where morality comes from.  And that’s what eventually led me to oxytocin.

Q:  You refer to oxytocin as the “moral” molecule.  But some research suggests that this neurochemical has a dark side. 
Paul Zak:  I’m sorry but oxytocin does not have a dark side.  The few papers published about this were horrendous.  There really is no darker side to oxytocin.  You can certainly find different behaviors but there is no evidence from those few papers that oxytocin has any impact on that.  Too many papers have been written very hyperbolically.  Well-established oxytocin researchers know better.

Q:  Some oxytocin research has been linked to aggression in animals.  Do you disagree with that work as well?
Paul Zak: The only link really is controlled aggression, where animals are supporting or protecting their offspring.  And there’s not really a downside to that.  And even when we talk about maternal aggression, these behaviors are not just about oxytocin.  There’s more involved than that.  But, as a reproductive hormone, if oxytocin is associated with care for offspring, you’d expect that care also means protecting your offspring. Not a dark side.

Q:  That brings up a great point.  You put a lot of emphasis on the power of oxytocin but this is a neurochemical that works closely with a variety of other molecules.  Why emphasize oxytocin above all the others?
Paul Zak:  Of course behavior is more complicated than a single neurochemical.  But, having said that, but what’s been missing from our understanding of human behavior is what motivates us to engage in all these social and moral behaviors.  The negative behaviors are very interesting in the laboratory, because they are so obvious and you get a huge response—things like fear and aggression.  The kind of motivators for good behavior, calm and a sense of trust, for example, weren’t so well defined.  It was the missing element to understanding how people navigated a sea of strangers every day, not just with aggression but by trusting and being social.  Oxytocin was the missing part of that puzzle.

Q:  What do you think is the most important thing that most people should know about oxytocin?
Paul Zak:  We are designed by evolution to be moral creatures.  That means we work hard to sustain ourselves as a social group.  Oxytocin actually helps us create the kind of world that we want to live in—a world that is more trusting, more loving and more moral.  So I think oxytocin gives individuals the power to create the lives they want.  Loving, happy and connected lives.  And that’s pretty powerful stuff, I think.
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