Morals and Molecules: A Q&A with Paul Zak

I 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.

Credit:  Login/Shutterstock.com

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