Science Book a Day Interviews Paul J Zak


Special thanks to Paul J Zak for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity

Paul J. Zak is a scientist, prolific author, and public speaker. His book The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity was published in 2012 and was a finalist for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize. He is the founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and Professor of Economics, Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. – From Paul’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for The Moral Molecule?

​There are two answers, one honest and one less honest.

Less Honest: In the late 1990s I began studying trust ​at the country level and I showed that trust was among the strongest predictors economists had ever found to explain why countries are prosperous or poor (high trust countries increase living standards more rapidly than low trust countries). The next stage of this research was to ask for a given environment why two strangers would ever trust each other. Since it is very hard to articulate why we trust someone, measuring brain activity, and particularly neurochemical changes seemed like the right approach, even though it was very unusual at the time.

More honest: My mother was a former Catholic nun and nearly every day issues of morality were discussed at the dinner table. She had a very top-down approach to morality: the bible says it so it is true. I felt like this was too easy an approach (what about Buddhists and Hindus and, gasp!, Protestants?). So, I’ve been very interested in morality from neurobiological basis for much of my life and this lead me to spend a decade of my life trying to understand it.

#2 – What is the importance of oxytocin? Why it is so important to relationships and moral behaviour? Why didn’t we know its importance before?

​Oxytocin was not much studied in humans because its ability to contract the uterus during labor was thought to be its only real role medically, and because it is a very fragile molecule, degrading rapidly, so it is hard to study. I wanted to study oxytocin in the brain and not during birth, so I had to develop protocols to measure the brain’s synthesis of oxytocin during social interactions. I drew heavily from a large body of animal research. Oxytocin appears to be the key signalling molecule in the brain that says “This person is safe, you can approach”. It makes social interactions more effective by increasing our empathy for others. It is this heightened empathy that undergirds moral behaviors.

#3 – Released 2 years ago, has much new research been done? Have the ideas you discuss in your book been supported by more recent research?

​The work I’ve done has been replicated by other labs many times. We are currently using our knowledge of the neuroscience of trust to help organizations to build high trust, high performance teams, and to understand why communications like advertising are persuasive. ​

#4 – What has been the response to your book? From scientists? From the public?

​The response has been very strong among the public and scientists. Oxytocin as a “moral molecule” has become a meme. Although some scientists have critiqued my use of this term they seemed not to have read the book. The book and the research I’ve done makes clear that oxytocin ​ ​is part of a larger brain system that facilitates social behaviors, it does not work alone. Having said that, oxytocin was an essential missing component to understand moral behaviors that was not known until my work. ​

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

​As above, we are focusing on the neurobiology of narratives (or, why we cry at movies, that’s fascinating neurologically) and using neuroscience to build high performance organizations. The latter topic will be my next book.​

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