In this episode of our series “The World’s Most Interesting People,” I sat down with Dr. Paul Zak..
Dr. Paul Zak is a neuroeconomist, researcher, teacher and author of Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies and The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works.
He sat down with me to discuss oxytocin and how to hack the social interaction.
Meet Dr. Zak
What exactly is a neuroeconomist? What do you do?
Dr. Zak loves studying people. In his research, he measures brain activity when people make decisions. These can be decisions about ourselves, money, other people or other situations.
He really wanted to know: Why are people weird and where does this weirdness come from?
Everything, from our external environment to our memories to the people around us, shapes our unique weirdness, and there’s actually a high variation in the “weirdness” trait. We think we’re normal, and our neighbor across the street is strange, but what do they think about us?
I originally discovered Dr. Zak’s work on my quest for learning more about oxytocin. He’s also featured in my book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People.
The Oxytocin Odyssey
In your book, The Moral Molecule, you dive into your fascination with oxytocin. Can you walk us through your discovery process?
Dr. Zak tells us his discovery was a total “aha moment.” He was studying how trust affects economic performance, while simultaneously studying why parents invest so much energy into their children.
Next we jump to the late 90s, in a van in Reno, Nevada, where Dr. Zak meets anthropologist, Dr. Helen Fisher. He tells her about some of his research projects, and she asks if he’s ever heard of oxytocin. He hasn’t.
This spurred Dr. Zak to return to his hotel room and start searching. What he finds is essentially the unknown—there’s lots of research on oxytocin in the animal world, but nothing on how it works in humans outside of reproduction.
What is oxytocin? Why is it so important? Why should we be obsessed with it?
Oxytocin is one of about 200 chemicals that the body makes in the brain.
Here’s how it works on a basic level: When someone interacts with you in a positive way, your brain releases oxytocin. This then motivates you to return the favor and treat the other person in a similarly positive way.
“It’s like the biological basis for The Golden Rule.” –Dr. Paul Zak
Oxytocin is incredible, because it helps to reduce stress, makes us more empathtic, and improves immune function. It works like a survival mechanism. We encounter strangers every day, and oxytocin helps to train our brain to know who is safe and who we should avoid. According to Dr. Zak, oxytocin is the key signaling hormone.
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If I’m meeting new people, say at a networking event, can I use oxytocin to calm any anxieties and bond with the people I meet?
Dr. Zak says, ‘Yes!’ But the trouble is, we can’t get our brain to make oxytocin on its own. We need a social stimulus.
Key Takeaway: Someone has to initiate this process, and Dr. Zak decided that, in his own life, it would be him.
He refers to himself as an “elevator talker.” This means if he’s in an elevator with other people, he’s going to say hello. Some of the elevator passengers are a little freaked out by him initiating the interaction, but many are pleasantly surprised at the opportunity to connect and converse. Dr. Zak has taken his oxytocin-boosting ways outside of elevators to other forms of transportation. He even met his wife on an airplane after striking up a conversation!
Do you do this all the time now? Do you purposefully spark up conversation in others because you don’t know if you’ll get the oxytocin otherwise?
Dr. Zak agrees, but he hasn’t quite thought through the process in this way. He further explains that we need oxytocin for connection. It’s a life-source for our health and our happiness. He’s actually a huge introvert. So, it’s not in his nature to go gabbing to everyone he meets. He’s used the power of oxytocin to help him seek out others and make lasting connections.
Action Step: For the next seven days, strike up a conversation with one new person.
What is your go-to opener in your elevator conversations?
It’s an easy one:
“Hello, how are you?”
And then Dr. Zak uses this context to continue the conversation. If he recognizes a foreign language, he’ll ask where someone is from. If he’s in an elevator in a hotel, he’ll ask someone’s travel plans.
“We are gregarious, social creatures. We need to connect.” –Dr. Paul Zak.
What are the three fastest ways to stimulate oxytocin in social settings?
One of the factors that inhibits oxytocin production is stress. Don’t stress someone out!
In Dr. Zak’s research, he’s learned that touch (why he’s a hugger), group movement — such as dancing and exercising, stories, movies, commercials, music, mutual gazing — and sex, all release oxytocin.
“It’s about being fully present for the people around you.” – Dr. Paul Zak
Dr. Zak not only wants to give his full attention to those around him, he also wants to be of service to them. He even uses the word “service” in conversation to prime the other person’s brain for that feel-good emotion. And further, he signs off his emails with “Hugs, Paul.” This is literally a written form of oxytocin!
Can memories trigger oxytocin?
Dr. Zak says they’ve looked a little into memories and their effects on oxytocin.
Our brains use our memories to activate specific patterns for our interactions with people. If Dr. Zak hugs someone in person, then uses “hugs” in an email the following week, the brain will activate the memory of the in-person hug just by reading that word. This triggers oxytocin.
The Love Plus Rule
Dr. Zak’s big mission is adding more love to the world. He seeks to add love to every conversation and interaction. We’re made to love each other, and oxytocin can be a vehicle to do just that.
Action Step: Be open-hearted and be of service to people. How can you add oxytocin to every single one of your interactions?
I know you’ve conducted tons of research for your university and companies. Do you have a favorite research experiment?
Dr. Zak shares two incredible studies with us. First, he knew oxytocin was “a thing’ in developed countries, but he was curious if the chemical operated the same way in more remote areas. He partnered with an organization in Japan to study social evolution and traveled to the rain forests of Papua New Guinea. This is an area with 800 distinct languages and intimate tribes of people.
With the help of a Japanese anthropologist, he took blood from the natives before and after a ritualistic war dance. These individuals never had been to a doctor or dentist. They never even had seen their blood flow into a tube!
Incredibly, Dr. Zak was trapped in the rain forest for days after the experiment—with no bathrooms, no electricity and no running water. At first, he was flustered, but in what seemed like no time at all, the people adopted Dr. Zak as tough he was one of their own. They showed him love and he shared it back. It was the perfect example of oxytocin in action.
The second study took place in Japan. This research looked at the Japanese divorce rate, specifically in the middle-age population.
Using wearable monitors, Dr. Zak was able to measure the amount of connection between the couples and provide them with actionable exercises to strengthen their relationships.
This is huge! Many women who were ready to divorce their husbands left completely activated and ready to save their marriage after understanding the power of oxytocin.
You’ve worked with so many people over the years, and have witnessed transformations and, in some cases, no transformations. What’s something you used to believe that you no longer believe in?
Dr. Zak said there’s a bit of a societal stigma that says people with a bunch of letters after their name are smart and those without are ill-informed. This isn’t how he operates.
He works hard in his lab to encourage each voice to be heard—whether it’s a freshman or a graduate student. He doesn’t have an office. He’s not the boss and he shies away from any kind of hierarchal structure.
“Education and knowledge are not always coordinated. It’s about embracing diversity in people’s backgrounds and thoughts. People are really weird, but weirdness is really interesting.” –Dr. Paul Zak
Can you share one piece of advice with us based on your years of studying people?
Dr. Zak reminds us that no one is normal. In all his research, Dr. Zak has found averages in the data, but the variations from the average far outweigh what’s considered “normal.” He encourages us not to expect that our spouses or friends or children or parents or roommates will behave in any kind of normal way. And this is okay, because it makes us interesting!
Further, Dr. Zak calls out the emotion he sees in others. Rather than assume the status quo of being “fine,” he strives to suss out someone’s inner emotions by saying, “You look happy” or “You look sad” or “You look frustrated.” He seeks to make his interactions as valuable as possible and he does this through emotion identification.
This creates immediate impact—the person you’re interacting with will be so grateful for your presence and attention to their emotional state, which creates a cycle of empathy and genuine connection.
Action Step: Snap out of autopilot. Don’t be a social zombie–be awake for the people around you!
Check out more of Dr. Zak’s work:
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes.