By Paul J. Zak, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Paul J. Zak is a professor at Claremont Graduate University in California and author of 'The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity.' The views expressed are his own.
Be humble. Maybe your mother told you that when you were a child, but it has no place in our “look at me” culture. Nor does it fit into the elbows-out world of business.
Yet, humility is a core value of one of the fastest growing companies of the last decade, Zappos.com. Ten years after its inception, Zappos.com annual sales exceeded one billion dollars, in part by being nice to customers. Can being nice actually cause you to win in life (and business)?
A decade ago, I began running experiments to see if the neurochemical oxytocin (ox-ee-TOE-sin), not to be confused with the prescription pain reliever Oxycontin, did anything more in humans than contract the uterus during birth, the dogma at the time. Intriguing research in social mammals showed that oxytocin allowed for the toleration of burrow-mates. Maybe, I thought, in humans toleration might scale up to trust, compassion, and humility – the most laudable human behaviors.
As I describe in my new book, this idea was difficult to execute. Oxytocin is a shy molecule – the brain must be coaxed into making it – and then it disappears rapidly, with a three-minute half-life. Once I had figured out how to measure oxytocin, how would I measure virtues? Because I’m trained both in economics and neuroscience, rather than simply asking people if they were moral (who would say no?), I tempted them with virtue and vice by putting a stack of money in front of them. If they trusted a stranger with their money, the money would grow, but then the stranger may or may not be trustworthy and share the largess with them.
By taking blood from participants, I was able to show that the more money people received showing trust, the more their brains produced oxytocin. And, the more oxytocin in their systems, the more money they reciprocated to the person who had initially trusted them. This was one of the first experiments in a new field called neuroeconomics.
Think about how revolutionary this finding is: we have a chemical in our brains that is released when someone – even a stranger – treats us well, and this chemical motivates us to treat them well in return. This is the biological basis for the Golden Rule: do to others what you would like done in return. The Golden Rule exists in every culture on the planet, so it must have deep biological roots.
In fact, a mechanism for reciprocating nice with nice is exactly what highly social creatures like us need to remain part of our social groups. How do we punish prisoners who misbehave? Put them in solitary confinement. This is a severe sanction, driving some to suicide.
I have confirmed these findings in dozens of laboratory and field experiments, including by taking blood at church services, at a rugby game, and from indigenous peoples in the rain forest of Papua New Guinea. Positive social interactions, often revolving around rituals, stimulate oxytocin and bring participants together in community. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote that morality comes from being in community with others. My experiments confirm this.
My colleagues and I have also shown that a variety of factors inhibit the oxytocin response. These include high stress, severe and early childhood abuse, a number of psychiatric disorders, and the high testosterone found in young men. Yet, among the thousands of individuals who have participated in my experiments, 95 percent release oxytocin when treated with kindness and reciprocate by being nice in return.
But is there a payoff to being nice? Recent research by Alex Edmans at the Wharton School of Business shows that companies in Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For in America list have consistently higher stock returns than comparable companies. Zappos.com is near the top of Fortune's list of best places to work and offers new employees who complete two weeks of training $1,500 to quit if they don't think they'll love working there. Few take it.
Even more than simply money, my experiments show that those who release the most oxytocin are more satisfied with their lives. Why? They have better relationships of all types: romantic, friendships, families, and they even share more money with strangers in our laboratory tasks.
We simply like being around people who treat us well (and don't brag about it). A little dose of nice goes a long way.