ideas42 Affiliate Series: A Talk with Paul Zak

Feb 8, 2016 in Blog

ideas42’s network of academic affiliates represent some of the world’s foremost experts in behavioral science. With the ideas42 Affiliate Series, we invite them to share their insights and what inspires their exploration into human behavior.

Our New York office recently had the pleasure of hosting Paul Zak– our newest Affiliate and founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and Professor of Economics, Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. Zak is credited with the first published use of the term “neuroeconomics”. His work over the last decade has explored the powerful influence of oxytocin in affecting trust, morality and virtuous behaviors and his recent research applies neuroscience to improve marketing and consumer experiences as well as organizational performance. Before speaking to the ideas42 team about some of his preliminary work, Paul took the time to tell us some fascinating insights about the applications of neuroeconomics in his lab and the real world.

What drew you to the field of neuroeconomics?

I was drawn to neuroeconomics out of frustration. I really want to understand what human beings are doing yet economists had this sense that people were making mistakes but we didn’t know why. People would make decisions that, they themselves would say, is not best for them and they would label as ‘irrational’. In fact, our brain’s make decisions in very specific ways that allows us to survive, reproduce and so we really want to take a very humble approach to ask what’s going on in the brain while we make decisions in order to understand them without any overlay of good or bad. Lets just find out what brains are doing.

What’s one of the most surprising discoveries about human behavior that you’ve made?

One of the key breakthroughs we’ve made in my lab is identifying the neurochemical basis for our social brain. So we know we are social creatures but what does that really mean? My lab was the first to discover the role of the neurochemical oxytocin; when your brain makes oxytocin you become much more pro-social. It tells us something deep about human nature- we are social creatures and we have a signaling molecule that motivates us to engage with others. It also tells us how we can hack the syste, like I did before I came into this room – I hugged everybody. Touch releases oxytocin. There are lots of ways to motivate positive social behaviors and actually these behaviors are good for our health and happiness. Embracing our social nature and understanding how this nature is promoted or inhibited neurologically is really an interesting insight.

How can neuroeconomics be applied to improve organizational performance?

A lot of the work my lab is doing now applies neuroscience to improve organizational performance. We do this by using principles of social neuroscience to understand why individuals come together as a group to accomplish common goals. This is actually very unusual behavior, only humans do this with complete strangers. How do we design a culture in which people are highly engaged intrinsically and motivated to improve the performance of the organization? What we’ve found is that trust is a key component there. If you build a culture of trust than I’m endowing the individuals around me autonomy to perform at their best. Also giving people very clear feedback, celebrating wins, understanding that working together as a group is something we like to do. Our brains are designed to do. Really optimizing our understanding of what a culture of trust means and so even though we started this out in the laboratory, we are now applying this to a bunch of Fortune 50 companies to actually make work, not a drag, but something that is engaging and fun. It is better for the individual employee- they are happier and engage more- better for the organization and, we’ve shown recently, even better for society. People who work in high trust organizations are healthy, happier and even weigh less. This is great for the entire planet.

What have you learned in applying neuroeconomics that has changed your own behavior?

There’s this saying in psychology that all research is ‘me’search. Maybe I began studying human social behaviors because I had some deep underlying pathology, who knows. What I’ve learned is that we are social creatures and the extent that we embrace that as well as other people around us, recognize those people and really celebrate them we, in fact, are happier. The most selfish thing you can do is be selfless so I’ve tried to practice that in my own life to connect better to people, talk to them on elevators, to reach out to people in need- really being a better social creature. I think I’ve become more empathic and have certainly become a nicer person, a better husband, a better father and probably a better colleague too.

How do you use behavioral science in your daily life (or recommend that people use behavioral science in their daily lives)?

It’s so fun to have some expertise in behavioral science and apply that to one’s daily life. This is anything from talking in an elevator to connecting to people around me, but mostly to think about- because I’m kind of an evil person- hacking the brain. I want to hack the brains of those people around me so that I can persuade them to do things that are hopefully in their best interest. I certainly want to make my interactions with other people more engaging, more useful and build a deeper connection with those around me. More than that, I definitely want to use neuroscience to make my world better and the world around me better. I can’t force anyone to do anything but I can certainly present information in a way that’s more compelling, more persuasive and more interesting.