The molecule of morals
ECONOMICS and biology have a lot to do with each other, says neuroscientist Paul J Zak.
Human beings are predisposed to be social - it's in our chemistry.
We've developed societies that function on cooperation between strangers, and as Zak points out in his book The Moral Molecule, this cooperation boils down to trust and affects whole economies.
At college Zak majored in mathematical biology and economics. He also read a lot of moral philosophy and theology.
"After grad school, the maths, the biology, the economic concerns all came together," he says.
He began his academic career building economic models of what makes countries prosper and then became interested in the effect that the chemicals in our bodies have on society.
"I didn't know it yet," he says, "but I was about to invent a new field called neuroeconomics."
By conducting experiments on volunteers, Zak confirmed that the hormone oxytocin has a profound effect on human behaviour. So does testosterone.
"Testosterone will make people do some very strange things. Truth be told, the strange-acting people tend to be men," Zak says.
"It's testosterone that prompts male risk-taking and violence, and the gender's most characteristic behaviour: the reckless pursuit of sex, regardless of consequences."
Oxytocin encourages human bonding, empathy and trust. It's secreted during and after childbirth and is strongly associated with maternal behaviours. It's also secreted during orgasm.
"Oxytocin combined with the two feel-good neurochemicals it releases - serotonin and dopamine - activates the Human Oxytocin Medicated Empathy circuit.
"Dopamine reinforces the smile of thanks we get when we treat others well, and serotonin gives us a mood lift. It is this home circuit that keeps us behaving morally - at least most of the time," says Zak.
"Stress, testosterone, trauma, genetic anomalies, even mental conditioning can inhibit these effects.
"But as long as we keep these influences from taking over, the system is self-reinforcing."
Zak calls oxytocin "the brain's love chemical" and just like love, you have to give it to get it, he says.
Oxytocin makes brains want to express reciprocated behaviours.
If you express kindness, trust, generosity to others, they will want to return the favour.
His research and experiments helped him to identify the link between oxytocin, trust, morality and economics.
In experiments, including taking blood from a bride and groom and their family and friends before, during and after the nuptials, to money-based trust trials conducted on his students, Zak has demonstrated that oxytocin levels peak when we are good to each other.
To trigger oxytocin - dubbed the moral molecule - all we need to do is give a sign of trust, says Zak.
Oxytocin works to make us bond as humans and act virtuously and cooperatively.
From the results of his experiments, Zak extrapolates that societies that display more trust lead to better economic development.
Zak says: "I had done some early work which showed that countries in which levels of interpersonal trust were high were richer."
The next question for Zak was: for any given country, why would you ever trust a stranger?
Across biology, psychology, economics and neuroscience, no one really had an answer.