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How a Key Brain Hormone Might Explain Whether You're Generous or Not

Researchers have found that oxytocin, which promotes human bonding, plays a powerful role in shaping how generous people are.

The neuroeconomist Paul Zak is driving west along Interstate 10 on a gorgeous Southern California morning. As we pass emerald hillsides, glowing from recent rains, and the snow-blanketed ridges of the San Gabriel Mountains, Zak talks about how standard economics neglects the biological mechanisms of trust that underlie myriad human interactions. “Why people cooperate -- why people are altruistic -- is a huge question,” he says. “When you think about how much of the world works on a handshake or on holding a door open for somebody in an airport, all that kind of falls through the cracks in economics.”

Zak and his collaborators at Claremont Graduate University have found that oxytocin, a hormone produced in the brain that promotes human bonding, plays a powerful role in shaping how generous people are. He calls it “the moral molecule.” “It’s a whole different model,” Zak says. “It tells us why global commerce works -- because there is a motivation to reciprocate.”

People release oxytocin (pronounced ok-si-toh-sun) in settings that promote feelings of trust and safety, Zak has found, and their behavior becomes more trusting and generous in return. He envisions workplaces structured to reinforce this cycle. He’s so absorbed in his subject that he misses a prompt from his car’s GPS unit (Zak admits to having a poor sense of direction) and finds his SUV in the wrong lane. “You’re getting the whole Paul Zak driving experience,” he says. As he shoulder-checks a lane change for the next exit, I think of the thousands of drivers on their morning commute all around the Los Angeles metro area who somehow manage not to hit one another.

It seems nothing short of miraculous -- a perfect example of trust in action.

Eventually, we arrive in Whittier, home to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department training academy, where Zak has been consulting. Tall and fit, with all-American good looks, Zak, 48, cuts an arresting figure as we meet up in a conference room with Capt. Mike Parker, Lt. Reinhardt Schuerger and Sgt. Al Cobos, who are working to shift the department’s internal disciplinary process away from punishment in favor of education and improved performance.

Zak met Parker a couple of years ago after speaking at a community hospital in Tarzana, in the San Fernando Valley. “We are trying to build a trust-based police force,” Parker told him. “We understand you’re some kind of trust expert. We want to talk to you.” It was the beginning of an unusual partnership, cops and economists coming together to use a happiness hormone to build public trust.

“Without the public’s trust we’ve failed, because we’re ineffective,” Parker tells us. “If they don’t trust you, they won’t report the crimes to you.” Trust is also an issue within the department, where disciplinary infractions often result in unpaid leave -- a punishment that can undermine trust between management and deputies.

Zak helped develop an alternative disciplinary system that allows erring deputies to take a range of classes in such subjects as tactical communication, anger management and money management in lieu of suspension. The program’s cornerstone is the mandatory LIFE ( Lieutenant’s Interactive Forum for Education) class. “It’s a decision-making class,” Schuerger explains. “It’s all training and education based. The message is, ‘We trust you, we want to develop you because you’re still going to be a here a year from now.’”

This alternative discipline model is deliberately intended to elicit an oxytocin response, Zak says, adding, “There’s some good science behind this.”

Driving back to Claremont (with a wrong turn or two en route), Zak says he has also worked with the San Diego court system and advised a well-known consulting firm (the details are still confidential) regarding real-world applications of his research. He also consults for Express Scripts, a business that manages pharmaceutical benefits.

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