Speaking of Psychology: Molecules and morals: learning the link

Episode 6

 

Oxytocin has been called the “love hormone.” But recent research has shown that the brain chemical may play a role in regulating our moral behaviors. Researcher and author Paul Zak, PhD, discusses how his experiments and clinical studies have given us a glimpse into how oxytocin affects how we interact with one another, both face to face and online.

About the expert: Paul Zak, PhD

Paul Zak, PhDPaul Zak, PhD, is the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and professor of economics, psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University. In 2004, his lab discovered that 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. His book “The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity” was published in 2012.

Transcript

Audrey Hamilton: Oxytocin has been called the “love hormone.” But recent research has shown that the brain chemical may play a role in regulating our moral behaviors, earning itself another nickname – the “moral molecule.” In this episode, psychologist Paul Zak talks about his research into oxytocin’s impact on how we interact with one another face to face and even virtually. I’m Audrey Hamilton and this is “Speaking of Psychology.”

Paul Zak is the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies and professor of economics, psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University. He studies the brain chemical oxytocin and its impact on behaviors and personality. His book, “The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity” was published in 2012. Welcome, Dr. Zak. 

Paul Zak: Thank you. Happy to be here. 

Audrey Hamilton: We want to know, what is oxytocin? Why do you call it the moral molecule? 

Paul Zak: So, oxytocin is a chemical the brain makes. It functions both as a hormone, which means it affects parts of the body outside the brain. And in the brain it actually affects brain activity. And it was known only to be released in humans during birth and breast feeding and during sex. But it turns out in a study we started doing about a dozen years ago that there are many other stimuli that cause the brain to release oxytocin and when oxytocin is released, we connect to other people, we care about other people in tangible ways.

So, we’ve done experiments where we tempt people by putting money on the table and when people release oxytocin or when we give them synthetic oxytocin, they’re much more likely to engage in positive social behaviors or what we would call “moral behaviors” because of oxytocin. 

We’ve taken blood before and after different social stimuli, positive social stimuli – like dancing, like singing, like sharing – people praying, meditating. All of these things done in a group release oxytocin and subsequently, follow the money. So, see what people do with the money once they’ve released oxytocin and we see that we can actually turn on these positive social behaviors, moral behaviors, like opening a garden hose. 

So it tells us is that, first of all, oxytocin is a deep part of our human nature. It’s what it means to be a human is to be a social creature. But to be social, we have to have some chemicals, some indicator in our brain that tells us this person is safe. This person is someone I can affiliate with. This is someone I should care about. And that’s what oxytocin seems to do. So, it works in conjunction with other neurochemicals that maintain a balance between trust and distrust or fear safety approach withdrawal. 

Audrey Hamilton: Can you alter the level of oxytocin in your brain or is that only something you can do in the lab or can you do it at home? 

Paul Zak: No, we’re doing it all of the time. So, a simple thing like hugging will raise oxytocin. So, a number of years ago I decided to not shake people’s hands, but hug everybody and people would connect better with me, actually. 

Audrey Hamilton: Surprisingly. 

Paul Zak: Yeah, surprisingly. And so, anything that really reaches out and connects you with other people will likely raise oxytocin. We’ve done a lot of field studies. For example, in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, taking blood from people who live in the rainforest, after they do a tribal dance and a majority of those individuals release oxytocin. I’ve gone to weddings and taken blood from the bride and groom of the wedding party and that wedding ritual not only releases oxytocin, on average, but it does so in a very particular manner. Who’s the center of the wedding solar system? The bride, of course! She’s the biggest increase of oxytocin.  Who loves the wedding almost as much as the bride? Her mother. So, she’s number two. 

And so, the release of oxytocin, the amount of release tells us about the strength of connections between individuals. So, who are the best oxytocin releasers? Little children, puppies, people who need our support to survive. But, I think we all can actually release oxytocin in others. So, we can’t cause our own brains to release oxytocin in general, with some exceptions, but we can give that gift to others. 

So, I think one of the take home’s is as a social creature, you need to reach out, connect to others, give them that gift of oxytocin release and most likely, 95 percent of the thousands of people we study, they will reciprocate. The people who don’t are essentially two types. One is people who are super stressed out. They’re having a bad day. They just don’t have the brain activity to actually release oxytocin. And the second is psychopaths. Studies show psychopaths don’t release oxytocin and they don’t have the antecedent psychological effects of oxytocin release, which is a feeling of empathy. So, that’s classically missing in psychopaths. So, when we connect to others, we better reflect their emotions, which helps us be better social creatures to understand how to interact with them. 

Audrey Hamilton: In your talking about things that are very much about face-to-face interactions, how have our brains adapted to more frequent interactions via social media and online networking? How has all of this come into play? 

Paul Zak: That’s a great question. So we’ve done a couple of small skilled studies. We came in, had people give us a sample of their blood and then let them in private use social media of any type: Twitter, Facebook, emailing and then took their blood ten minutes later. 

What we found was that in 100 percent of the people we’ve tested so far, social media use causes the brain to release oxytocin. And, as I said earlier, the amount of oxytocin released tells us about the strength of connection. So we did this recently for a Korean TV station and we included one of their young producers in the sample. Must have been 22 or 23 years old and when we got the results of his blood test back he had 150 percent increase in oxytocin. 

Audrey Hamilton: Wow. 

Paul Zak: So I said, I don’t know what this guy was doing because he was using social media in private. My guess was he was interacting with his mother or his girlfriend because the connection was so powerful. They checked. He was posting to his girlfriend’s Facebook page for ten minutes. 

So again, think about this chemical as giving us the ability to determine who we should invest our resources in. Who we should be vulnerable to. Who we should trust. Who we want to be around. And that’s very adaptive for social creatures. 

Audrey Hamilton: Now, another thing. You founded the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies. What is neuroeconomics? How does it help us learn about human behavior? 

Paul Zak: Right, so I know you have never made a bad decision in your life. 

Audrey Hamilton: I wish. 

Paul Zak: But, your brother-in-law who started buying investment real estate in 2007, when everyone knew the bubble was going to crash, what’s the deal on that? 

So, neuroeconomic studies brain activity while people make decisions. That’s it. Many of those decisions have to do with decisions that may involve products or markets, but a lot of them don’t. So, much of our research has been on social decisions. So it interacts strongly with areas of social psychology as well as with solving problems. How do people actually solve problems as a group or as individuals, which interacts with cognitive psychology? So, many of the studies we have done have a very strong psychological component to them because we not only want to understand their brain activity and their behavior, but what it feels like. What’s the subjective experience of going through this? And so, we use a lot of tools from psychology to really understand what humans are doing.  

Audrey Hamilton: Well, great. Well, thank you so much Dr. Zak for being with us today. 

Paul Zak: It was a pleasure. 

Audrey Hamilton: For more information Dr. Zak’s work, please visit our website. With the American Psychological Association’s “Speaking of Psychology,” I’m Audrey Hamilton.