Hi, I'm Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University. I study how biochemistry affects behaviors such as empathy, cooperation, trust, and generosity. Why are the people around you so wacky? Let’s talk about it (and of course you are perfectly normal!). We can discuss psychopathology, relationships, work, movies and anything else that changes the way you feel and act. My TED talk. My work in Fast Company. My Psychology Today blog.

Proof: https://twitter.com/pauljzak/status/392693581745381376/photo/1


Comments: 113 • Responses: 21  • Date: 

RobertoCHernandez11 karma

Does your research compliment/strengthen the concepts of secular morality? If moral behavior isn't mediated through God or religion...

zakpj22 karma

My research shows we don't need God or gov't to be moral. Oxytocin is an evolutionary old mechanism that motivates social interactions and empathy. These are the ingredients for morality (we've test this in around 10K people over 10+ years a variety of ways). We are watching each other and penalize those who behave badly. But, a little God or gov't might be good. These are "crowd sourced" guidelines for appropriate moral behavior--just in case you decided you didn't like your spouse anymore, these sources say killing him/her is wrong almost always. These are useful because our moral intuitions (and oxytocin release) are affected by lots of factors that result in immoral behaviors. Like everything we do, they more we practice connecting to others, the easier and more likely it becomes.

kmfariss6 karma

What major behavior differences have you found between women and men and how they function in the work place based on their biochemistry?

zakpj8 karma

This surprised me until I had tons of data to support it: in EVERY experiment we've run, on average women release more oxytocin than do men. Full stop. I think this is way women are generally nicer than men and better at connecting to others than men. Of course some men are supernice and great connectors. Except...sometimes in women the oxytocin/connection system is inhibited, e.g. by progesterone, and accentuated by estrogen. So, women typically nicer than men, but also more complicated than men. For workplace: I think key is diversity, have equal numbers of men and women throughout an organization (esp. at the top). I gave a TED talk in the biological diffs between men and women that you might enjoy http://www.moralmolecule.com/42-tedx-amsterdam-women-paul-zak.html?cid=36paul-zak

Salacious-5 karma

What interesting or unusual effects does religious affiliation have on a person's choices, in your experience?

zakpj8 karma

Religious adherents are on average happier than nonreligious people. We've found that oxytocin release is just a bit larger in people who are "spiritually committed" than in others. Could be that the socializing during religious ceremonies exercises the oxytocin neurons.

Ninjacherry5 karma

What are some influences someone's cultural background have you noticed to affect their level of generosity/emphaty?

zakpj15 karma

Great question! Our brains prefer to do what we're used to doing (to save energy). So, high trust countries like Norway tend to trust others more than when the same experiment is run in a low trust country like Bolivia. We have studied people who had severely traumatic childhoods and about 50% of them don't have an intact oxytocin/empathy system. Lastly, those with "bad genes", e.g. psychopaths, lack empathy and have inhibited oxytocin release. So: to release oxytocin and show empathy you need, roughly, good genes, good parents, and a safe environment to live in.

pairofdigms2 karma

do psychopaths really have different genes than regular people?

babarbaby5 karma

What ideas can I, as a super villain, extrapolate from your work to further my own efforts? Please note: I'm hoping for an answer other than 'hug people'.

zakpj7 karma

Super Villian ahoy! My book The Moral Molecule has a chapter called "Bad Boys". Man, it's fun to be a bad boy but it has costs, too (like early death!). Great super villians are full of testosterone, take risks, are aggressive, and seek to dominate others. I got new bad boy stripes recently by starting to skydive. All super villians need to fly. Some pics here http://www.moralmolecule.com/chapter-4-bad-boys/chapter-4-bad-boys.html Or, take up some other extreme sport, I've heard that Krav Maga is pretty awesome. But, after you dominate someone you can still give them a hug....

RobertoCHernandez1 karma

Dr. Doom, Lex Luthor, Magneto--take note.

tryify2 karma

Testosterone has been shown to increase the desire to share when there are no other high-testosterone individuals, at least from what I remember of a study, which would explain why all those individuals are completely chill with their buddies while still maintaining their macho demeanor towards their rivals.

zakpj3 karma

Yes. High T males sustain support in their coalitions by being generous. Guys: doesn't someone offer to pick up the drinks tab when you go out? That's this effect in action

whunting5 karma

Much of how we secrete hormones (like oxytocin) for trust in relationships must be dependent on face to face interaction, like for example in your Gas station con story. However, do you think the bodies secretion of those hormones change when we take out the interpersonal aspect of it, and instead the person is behind a computer screen?

zakpj2 karma

Great Q! Our lab experiments have people transferring money to each other by computer without face to face interactions to see if they really care about each other. Oxytocin reliably is released in computer-mediated interations (and it removes the "cute guy or girl effect"). More oxytocin is released when the other person is in need though (we study this using films of people requesting help).

Luckyhank5 karma

Could oxytocin help politicians work together better? For example, how about pumping in heavy doses of oxytocin during budget negotiations?

zakpj7 karma

Yes and no. The incentives that politicians have to work together are so weak. As someone said, “Politics is just show business for ugly people”. We showed recently, though, that if we give synthetic oxytocin to people, we can change their political preferences. Not everyone though. No effect on Repubs or hard-core Dems. But, loosely-affiliated Dems on oxytocin like Repub candidates and platforms more than these folks on placebo. We just reran this experiment in the last presidential election but this time gave participants testosterone. Can you guess the result?

a2planet3 karma

No; do tell. And what about soft-R's on D candidates, was that tested?

zakpj3 karma

No effect on soft Rs. Perhaps true believers!

scijourno4 karma

From where do you assert morals originate, and what do you provide as evidence?

zakpj6 karma

In my book The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Properity http://www.amazon.com/Moral-Molecule-Source-Love-Prosperity/dp/0525952810/ I discuss how I discovered that the neurochemcial oxytocin functions as a "moral molecule", motivating us to care for and about others in tangible ways. It's based on 10 years of experiments in my lab and around the world at field locations. The coolest experiment? Maybe taking blood samples from indigenous people in the rainforest of Papua New Guinea

Legend__LoL3 karma


zakpj13 karma

Your brain is an economic system: it has goals to achieve and limited resources with which to reach them. As a result, you build up habits to save brain resources. This is why even though your roommate repeatedly asks you to not put your dirty laundry on the floor, you can't break this habit easily. Because your brain is so expensive metabolically to run, it tries to run on low power most of the time. Your brain is lazy!

molrobocop2 karma

Where does chocolate rate on physiological response on a scale? Say baseline is seeing a kitten photo, upper limit is a hit of crack cocaine.

All I know is I keep a secret stash to help me deal with the wife from time to time.

zakpj7 karma

A women's magazine interviewed me once and called me a "relationship expert". I promptly showed this to my wife and suggested that for all future discussions she should defer to my expert status. Yeah, that didn't even work!

Luckyhank2 karma

I've got a wedding anniversary coming up. Any non-intuitive tips for getting the oxytocin pumping?

zakpj6 karma

Some of my favorite ways to raise oxytocin (besides sex, that always does it):

Reduce distractions and noise Share a meal Warm temperature, e.g. jacuzzi Give a gift Play with a dog Social media
Exciting activity together (e.g. rollercoaster, bungee jumping, horror movie). Dancing Karaoke

elmyrah2 karma

This may seem like a stupid question, but how can you truly study the origins of morality? It's not like anyone lives in a vacuum - even people who aren't religious in the US, for instance, are still similarly indoctrinated with basic Judeo-Christian values.

Thanks for stopping by!

zakpj2 karma

Great question. I"m a total skeptic when it comes to people telling me in experiments how moral they are. So, in our experiments we put a stack of money on the table that people can take or can share with others or donate it to charity and they do this privately. I call this the "Jerry Maguire" approach to research: to find out what people care about show me the money (trail). We have done studies around the world to account for cultural differences and can measure things like religious beliefs to see what effect these have (not much) on moral behaviors. We've even gone into churches and taken blood before and after religious rituals. All in the name of science. What we've found is that for 95% of people tested, a positive social interaction causes the brain to make oxytocin, and the more oxytocin that is made, the kinder they are to others in tangible ways. This "connection" molecule is, I claim, the foundation for morality. You gotta read my book The Moral Molecule (or the blog by the same name) for all the details.

pashadag2 karma


zakpj3 karma

Thanks I think for the mashup suggestion! My lab has 30 people in it and we are superbusy running experiments. We're now using our knowledge of the chemistry of human connection to solve a number of problems in the world, e.g. how to keep people in organizations engaged and happy to accomplish its purpose.

zerordl2 karma

I've heard you talk about your "8 hugs a day" philosophy. Can you explain? Do you really hug strangers?

zakpj3 karma

We showed in experiments that touch causes the brain to synthesize oxytocin and motivates people to be kind to each other. As an experiment on myself some years ago I decided to refuse handshakes and tell people I hug everyone. I found that people laughed but they really connected better to me. So, I've done this for more than 5 years. It really works. E.g. I was at Marine Corps base Quantico 2 weeks ago and hugs the Marines I was working with. Why "8 hugs a day"? This way you are, once an hour, giving someone the gift of oxytocin release (and if they hug you back you get this gift, too). Oxytocin lasts up to 30mins in the body, so during this window you and the other person will be just a bit nicer to others. This can start a virtuous cycle of kindness leading to more compassionate society. It certainly can't hurt!

Skacoreal2 karma

Well that sounds horrifying.

zakpj8 karma

BTW, I pre-announce the hug so its not creepy and people can opt out. Opt outs are about 1%. I was in Vancouver over the weekend and had 1 guy opt out. That's fine

stay_at_work_dad2 karma


zakpj7 karma

The 8 hugs a day is meant to motivate connections to nonfamily. I presume your wife and kids already hug you. BTW, try with your kids the "time in" rather than the classic time out. This means have your upset child sit in your lap for as many minutes as he/she is old. Very calming for them, gives them extra love when they're freaking out.

Silocibina1 karma

Woww...i don't even know what to ask. Whats your major? I ask because i just can imagine putting together psychology, economics and biology. sounds amazing! as I'm a person that likes things kinda like that, i study economy, love philosophy and psychology....i would love to help or assist in a study like that, what can i do to get there?

zakpj3 karma

My background is in biology, math, economics, and neuroscience. I didn't have a plan when I studied all these fields, I just thought I'd be a more informed behavioral scientist. Now my lab had 30 people in it and we often have philosophers, political scientists, computer scientists, writers, etc. so I'm constantly learning from the very smart people around me. We encourage visitors so come by if you're in SoCal.

Ringbearer31-2 karma

Would you rather fight 100 flying duck sized brains, or one flying horse sized brain?

zakpj6 karma

100 duck brains. It could be like fruit ninja with flying ducks!