Paul Zak Awarded Million-Dollar Grant to Study Virtues

Templeton Foundation Grant Supports Researcher's Studies of Neuroeconomics

Claremont, CA, June 21, 2007 --( Paul Zak—Director of Claremont’s Center for Neuroeconomic Studies—has been awarded nearly $1.5 million in a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to support his project, “Oxytocin and the Neurobiology of Human Virtues: Resilience, Generosity, and Compassion.” The funding was one of the largest grants this year at Claremont Graduate University.

The grant follows directly from Zak’s previous Templeton Foundation-funded research on the role of values in supporting free-enterprise economies. The results of that two-year research program convinced Zak that human virtues are real, physiologically-measurable entities that make civilizations and modern economies possible.

The work stems from Zak’s research in neuroeconomics. The Center for Neuroeconomic Studies is one of only five such labs in the world; the center studies the brain and how our physiology affects our desire to spend money and thus, participate in the economy.

Zak’s latest research has proven that a naturally-produced neuropeptide, oxytocin, causes strangers to trust each other with money. Oxytocin is released when people initially trust one another. Zak and his colleagues have also shown a link between human touch and the release of oxytocin. According to Zak, oxytocin can be thought of as a physiologic signature for empathy and love: it binds us to our children and spouses, and makes us care about strangers.

This new study will look beyond trust to three additional virtues—resilience, generosity, and compassion—and examines not only their neurophysiological basis, but directly relates these mechanisms to human happiness and transcendence. Zak hopes to answer questions such as: Why are most people good even when no one is watching? Why do we feel the pain of strangers and sometimes spend our time and money to help them? What resources do some people have that allow them to recover from difficult situations?

The experiments also include psychological tests for spiritual beliefs and happiness.

“Understanding the biological bases for these virtues can help us to draw on these mechanisms to improve our own lives and the lives of those around us,” Zak said. “This knowledge can make us happier and optimize our ability to live fulfilled lives. It may also help us design institutions that foster resilience, generosity, and compassion in order to improve societies.

“Human beings are social creatures, but their extraordinary degree of care for strangers is difficult to explain biologically,” Zak continues. “Yet when we give, we also receive. Every major religious tradition identifies giving to others as an important part of our own journey toward transcendence.”

Each project has three experiments. Subjects will engage in decision tasks that elicit the virtues under study while brain activity is measured.

“This research will tell us about the human propensity to help strangers, even at a cost to themselves, as well as how modern impersonal economic exchange in markets occurs with a very small amount of government regulation and oversight,” Zak said. “Markets are self organizing, because most of the time, most people are virtuous (honest, trustworthy, etc.). We don't know why or how this works, so I'm looking to the brain for answers.”

Claremont Graduate University
Nikolaos Johnson