The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies
Author: Paul J. Zak
Pub Date: January 2017
Print Edition: $24.00
Print ISBN: 9780814437667
Page Count: 256
e-Book ISBN: 9780814437674
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Chapter 1: The Science of Culture
At Sanganer Camp in north India, the wall dividing the compound from the outside world is two feet high. Low enough that even children can climb over it. Sanganer Camp is an open prison village with 170 families and three guards. Each prisoner is serving a life sentence for murder.
Prisoners, all of them men, must be in the camp from 6pm to 6am, but otherwise can work in one of the nearby villages. Their families live with them and are supported by the men’s work. In the last decade there have been only six escapees, and in 50 years no prisoner has committed another murder. This prison, and others like it in India, grew out of Mahatma Gandhi’s view that even prisoners deserve a second chance. Family is important. Most prisoners are entrepreneurs, that is, they start a business to support their families. The mantra at Sanager is “trust begets trust.”
It turns out that “trust begets trust” is just how the brain works. In experiments I began running in 2001, my lab showed that when someone is tangibly trusted by a stranger, the brain synthesizes the signaling chemical oxytocin. We found that the more trust one is shown, the more the brain produces oxytocin. In these experiments we measure trust by the amount of money someone takes out of his or her own account and transfers to another person—a person they cannot see or speak to, but a real person who is in the experiment. The reason to send money to a stranger is because the experiment is designed so the money grows threefold during the transfer. Here’s where it gets really interesting: The amount of oxytocin made by the brain of someone who receives an intentional transfer denoting trust predicts how much money he or she will return to the stranger who had initiated trust—even though the receiver of the largesse is under no obligation to return a penny.
These findings blew a big hole in the traditional view in economics that only a sucker trusts others because trust will never be reciprocated. In fact, 95 percent of the hundreds of people we have tested in experiments who receive money denoting trust release oxytocin. These people show they are trustworthy by returning money to an anonymous person who took a chance to make them better off. This tells us a lot about human nature: trust begets oxytocin which begets trustworthiness in return. Think of oxytocin as the biological basis for the Golden Rule: If you treat me nice, my brain makes oxytocin, signaling that you are a person who I want to be around so I treat you nice in return. Trust is part of our evolutionarily-old repertoire of social behaviors.
How do we know this is true? In these experiments my lab rapidly drew blood before and after people were trusted in various situations to measure the surge in oxytocin, studies that have been replicated by other labs. But the brain does many things simultaneously. So to prove causation, we developed a way to safely infuse synthetic oxytocin into living human brains (through the nose). In these experiments, those receiving oxytocin, compared to those who got a placebo, not only showed more trust in strangers by sending them more money, oxytocin more than doubled the number of people who sent all of their money to a stranger, exhibiting maximal trust.
The full story of this discovery and how oxytocin provides new insights into human nature and human society is not essential to understand how trust makes companies perform. The most important thing to know is that oxytocin works by activating a brain network that makes us more empathic. For gregariously social creatures like human beings, empathy is a very valuable skill. Almost everyone over six years old can cognitively forecast what someone is likely to do by putting his- or herself in the other’s shoes (this is called having a “theory of mind”). This ability helps us understand how others will behave. But, empathy gives us additional information about others: it tells us how another person is feeling, or likely to feel, in various situations. This tells us why someone is doing something.
I call oxytocin the “moral molecule” because when the brain releases it, we treat others well, like we would a family member. Oxytocin-stimulated empathy means if we were to hurt someone we would share his or her pain. Since we do not like pain, empathy motivates appropriate social/moral behaviors. Human beings have highly developed empathy because it makes us more effective social beings. Prosocial behaviors like being trustworthy sustain us in communities of other people, including in organizations. As social creatures, we only survive in groups, so having the neurologic capacity for empathy and thereby an enhanced understanding of appropriate social behaviors has increased our likelihood of survival. But it gets even better than that: oxytocin makes it feel good to be part of an organization. Our brains reward us for cooperating and treating others well, including being trustworthy when we are trusted. Trust begets trust.
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