Scholar-researcher Paul Zak, Ph.D., the man who coined the term “neuro-economics,” has joined the Advisory Board of the Integrative Law Institute.
Zak is the founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, and Professor of Economics, Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. Zak also serves as Professor of Neurology at Loma Linda University Medical Center. He has degrees in mathematics and economics from San Diego State University, a Ph.D. in economics from University of Pennsylvania, and post-doctoral training in neuroimaging from Harvard.
Professor Zak’s lab discovered in 2004 that an ancient chemical in our brains, oxytocin, allows us to determine whom to trust. This knowledge is being used to understand the basis for modern civilizations and modern economies, improve negotiations, and treat patients with neurological and psychiatric disorders.
A featured TED speaker in 2011 (his talk has had more than a million viewers), Zak has also appeared on: Good Morning America, Dr. Phil, Fox & Friends, ABC Evening News, NOVA Science Now, NPR, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Time, The Economist, Scientific American, Fast Company, Forbes, and many others. His popular blog, “The Moral Molecule,” is featured on the Psychology Today website.
Zak’s research about the role of oxytocin (“the moral molecule”) in economic transactions has earned him the nickname “Doctor Love.”
Zak himself sometimes describes his research as “vampire economics” because of his track record of extracting blood from the bride and groom at a wedding, from Quakers before and after silent worship, from tribal warriors in Papua New Guinea as they prepare for traditional rituals, and from himself before and after skydiving attached to an instructor. Zak measures blood levels of oxytocin under a wide variety of conditions, and his carefully designed lab experiments establish that when oxytocin rises, people behave more generously to others, and vice versa: being treated well by others prompts subjects to behave more generously and trustingly themselves.
The starting point for Zak’s astonishing research was the persistent mystery that in lab experiments, people consistently behave more generously than classical economics principles can account for.
“A classic demonstration of this is known as the Trust Game, in which pairs of participants communicate with each other via computer terminals: they never meet, and have no idea who the other person is. Person A is given £10, then invited to send a portion of it, electronically, to person B. Person A has a motive for doing so: according to the rules, which both players know about, any money that A sends to B will triple in value, whereupon B will have the option of sending some of it back as a thank-you. According to conventional notions of rational behaviour, the game should break down before it has begun. Person B, acting selfishly, has no reason to give any money back — and, knowing this, person A shouldn’t send any over in the first place.
Yet, in trials of the game, 90% of A-people send money, while 95% of B-people send some back. Analysis of the oxytocin in their bloodstreams reveals what is going on: by sending money to person B, person A is giving a sign of trust – and being on the receiving end of a sign of trust, it emerges, causes oxytocin to increase, motivating more generous behaviour in return. And it is not just receiving free money that causes people to feel oxytocin’s “warm glow”: in other studies Zak has conducted, random windfalls don’t cause nearly so much of it to be released. What counts is being trusted: trust in one person triggers oxytocin in the other, which triggers more trustworthy behaviour, and so on, in a virtuous circle. “Well, that’s except for the 5% of people who are ‘unconditional non-reciprocators’,” says Zak, referring to the consistent minority of people who seem immune to this cycle. “What we call them in my lab is ‘bastards’.” [Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian, July 15, 2012.]
Zak’s recent book, The Moral Molecule, explores the evolutionary and revolutionary implications of these discoveries about oxytocin’s central role in trust, goodness, and morality. He sees oxytocin as an ancient molecule that evolved with us to help humans respond with exactly the right degree of trust and reciprocal trust in others in our social and economic transactions. Zak’s earlier work, which you can read about in his first book, Moral Markets, established that trust is an essential precondition of economic prosperity in nations, since contracts can work only where contracting parties trust one another to follow through. He now sees oxytocin as the biological mechanism that allows our unique large ultrasocial economies and cultures to function. In Zak’s words, the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have others do unto you—“is a lesson that the body already knows.”
The implications are obvious for our work as lawyers helping clients resolve the legal disputes arising from broken human relationships. If trust is our evolutionary legacy and advantage, and if as Zak contends in The Moral Molecule our ordinary human behavior toward one another directly impacts oxytocin levels and therefore trust and generosity, then we have available to us another big toolbox for helping our clients achieve resolution on terms that match their deepest personal values.