If you have taken an introductory economics class in college, you know that the economic theory of modern capitalism was introduced by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. The foundational concept is people make decisions based on “rational self-interest.” Most people don’t know that before he wrote The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote another book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he suggested that conscience and good behavior are inherent parts of our psychological makeup.
When we observe how people around us make decisions, “rational self-interest” doesn’t really seem to fit. Most decisions appear to be made emotionally or instinctively.
Paul Zak is a professor of economics who decided to investigate this other side of human nature.
What he found is that human beings have evolved to have two opposing characteristics that need to be in balance in order for us to have successful societies. One characteristic is the aggressive side, or competitive side. The hormone associated with our competitive side is testosterone.
The other characteristic is the cooperative, nurturing, trusting and loving side. This is the side that builds societies and organizations and nurtures families. Paul Zak learned that the hormone associated with our cooperative side is oxytocin, the “moral molecule.”
Zak conducted experiments using games and scenarios to measure what stimulates the production of oxytocin and whether introducing an oxytocin “supplement” can stimulate more nurturing behavior. (Oxytocin levels can temporarily be increased using an inhaler.) Oxytocin levels were measured using blood tests.
He found that oxytocin is stimulated by creating a safe environment and by giving nurturing stimulus. Individuals tend to return the trust of those who trust them. Giving nurturing behavior of hugs and praise stimulates a return of affection. (Sounds a lot like the Golden Rule, doesn’t it?)
Giving an oxytocin “supplement” does also stimulate more mellow, nurturing behavior, but the supplement dissipates fairly quickly.
Individuals who have been severely emotionally traumatized or suffer from certain physical diseases may have trouble producing oxytocin, so they can’t develop emotional connections with others.
The key lesson is that sociable, moral behavior is built into human physiology in addition to aggressive behavior. Both of them were required in order for us to be successful as human beings living in societies.
Since our success as a society and in our organizations depends on trust, The Moral Molecule is worthwhile reading.
Buy it on Amazon: The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works.
For our new reviews of business and self-improvement books, subscribe to our newsletter, Michael Gray, CPA's Tax & Business Insight!