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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on June 29, 2012
The molecule is oxytocin. You might be familiar with it from its role in inducing childbirth and lactation. It actually plays a huge role in maternal behavior, as well as pair bonding and pro-social behavior in general. You get a surge of it when you have sex, get a hug, see a baby, hear from an old friend. Its reputation as the love drug is well deserved.

Zak did a couple of interesting things with this hormone. First, he studied it, in a lab setting. Second, he used it to come up with a pretty comprehensive model that explains a lot of human behavior.

Zak's experiments were rather unusual. For one thing, he actually took blood to measure subjects' oxytocin levels. For another, he concentrated on typical economics experiments (the ultimatum game, for example). That's why what he's done has been jokingly called "vampire economics."

What he found is pretty interesting stuff, and basically lays to rest the old notion of homo economicus - the old "reasonable man" acting in his own "rational self-interest." This may be surprising only to economists, but Zak found that people are as emotional as they are rational, and that doing unto others makes you feel pretty darn good and is as much a motivator - if not more - than acquisitiveness.

This leads into his model where oxytocin starts a virtuous cycle of trust, caring, and all sorts of good stuff. He contrasts that with a vicious cycle based on testosterone. He then uses these models and his findings to speculate about quite a bit. For example, he:

* Speculates about the pro-social aspect of testosterone (e.g., enforcing norms)
* Wonders about both hormones' influence on the origin of religion
* Uses a lack of oxytocin to explain autistic and psychopathic behavior
* Finds that Republican have less oxytocin than Democrats and independents

Zak is also an excellent writer. Great stories, humor, and a style that makes for very easy reading.

My only reservations were for the last two chapters, where he goes a little overboard with his speculations. These chapters are not as closely tied to experiments, and get quite wooly, full of platitudes, and somewhat over-blown.

Overall, though, this is one of the best books I've read in quite awhile.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2012
This book is about the hormone oxytocin (which is principally a female hormone but also present in the male). This hormone is the molecule referred to in the title of the book. "Am I actually saying that a single molecule...accounts for why some people give freely of themselves and others are coldhearted bastards, why some people cheat and steal and others you can trust with your life, why some husbands are more faithful than others, and, by the way, why some women tend to be more generous - and nicer - than men?" asks the author Paul Zak. "In a word, yes" he answers.

This molecule as Zak calls it, is a "feel good" hormone that increases when we do simple, feel good things like giving or receiving a hug, or when we give generously. The act of giving stimulates this hormone resulting in the recipient desiring to trust the giver. Zak explains that there is also a counter hormone ("testosterone") which he calls the "bad boy" hormone that increases the impulse to take risk and behave badly. However, testosterone is necessary for physical courage and strength. Thus, the mammalian animal evolved with these two hormones balancing each other and so many of the unusual behavior Zak says, can be attributed to an imbalance of those hormones.

From the general effects and the origin of this hormone in the evolutionary process, Zak discusses specific topics such as the effect of oxytocin deprivation in orphans. He also discusses the influence of oxytocin inclining people to religion. Zak believes, however, that religion serves a useful purpose regardless of whether God exists or not. Some parts of his theory concerning the connections between oxytocin in early civilisations may be controversial insofar as he postulates that oxytocin influence on the feel good factor leads people to have warm feelings which are interpreted as "love" and its connection to sex, and from there to procreation and creation. So maybe for the religious God is love but for scientists like Zak, love is God. It is a fascinating and illuminating book on the whole if one is interested in what makes us tick.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on May 15, 2012
Paul Zak. Remember the name. No, you need not. His name will come back time and again. He is a shooting star in economics and neuroeconomics. Moral Moelcule is a terrific book. Great science and great storytelling. In traditional economics, morality is an add-on. Something that must be constructed or realized through man-made rules and constitutional constraints on people's collective decision making, and for market-based decision making to work at all. Zak points to how such constraints might not have a prayer of making markets viable without the evolved chemistry of the brain that makes cooperation and trust self-rewarding. Great read, and I felt compelled to post this comment after the first four chapters, in spite of the fact that his arguments are unsettling for me as a traditional economist. I look forward to spending time with the rest of the book. Take a glimpse of the future of economics through this book. Very highly recommended.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
This is one man's study of events taking place at the frontier of science, specifically at the very fertile point at which the biological sciences intersect with the social sciences. It is at this precise point that in recent years an increasingly long line of groundbreaking studies have been advancing the larger scientific thesis that Darwin's theory of Evolution is the only mechanism needed to set the parameters for both our Biological and now our more human and moral existence. Perhaps it goes without saying that if this author's results stand up to peer review and replication, he will have proven that a single hormone is probably as responsible as anything else for our very humanity.

This scientific detective story will have the skeptical reader gasping for breathe as he is forced (as I was) to seek a hasty retreat: continuously giving ground until he is finally forced to surrender to the logic and convincing evidence on display in this fine piece of work by a Southern California Neuro-economist. I nervously backtracked from saying: "This is such a cockamamie idea," to a final position of saying "of course this is the way human behavior works, how could it be otherwise?"

The author's primary thesis has been to prove that Oxytocin is a key hormone in the development of moral behavior in man. The protagonist of this story is the "birth" hormone Oxytocin, (not to be confused with the painkiller, Oxycontin). The antagonist is oxytocin's opposite: testosterone, which as the author notes, primarily accounts for the difference in behavior between the sexes. The primary role of oxytocin, up until studies like this one, had been to induce labor in women during childbirth. Oxytocin had been deemed the "cuddle" hormone since it was the hormone responsible for the bonding between mothers and their newborns during breastfeeding. Testosterone, on the other hand blocks oxytocin, explaining gender differences in cooperative behavior. Through his experiments, the author was able to hint, if not partially explain, other related behaviors. For instance, as he pointed out, that perhaps it is the absence of oxytocin that explains why trauma victims have trouble connecting emotionally, or why children who have been abused respond so quickly when they are around people they can trust.

In a series of what can only be described as dazzling and tightly controlled experiments, involving simulated economic prisoner dilemma style exchange games, Zak sets out to exhibit, and then succeeds at revealing solid empirical evidence that Oxytocin is THE mechanism at the very center of the human moral drama. In this regard, his main discovery is that Oxytocin works with other hormones in sensitive ways to produce in "intensely social creatures," what the Evolutionary Biologists and Evolutionary Psychologists have now come to recognize as altruistic and moral behavior. In short, he has shown rather convincingly that it is this one hormone, oxytocin that sits at the control center of our human moral guidance system.

The way he shows this is through a series of groundbreaking, carefully controlled but simple experiments: he observed changes in human (and later in animal) behavior as dosage levels (for both natural and synthetic forms of Oxytocin) were systematically changed in the subject's blood stream. He revealed for instance, that when a shot of the synthetic version of the hormone was squirted into the nose of a human subject, good and bad behavior could be turned on an off like a faucet. In short, when all was said and done, the author's experiments demonstrated that changes in Oxytocin levels in both humans and animals, could be strongly correlated (that is to say could be correlated in both the positive and the negative directions) with human moral behavior.

What we learn from this about behavior in both man and animal is that trust triggers a surge in the hormone Oxytocin, and as a result, can initiate a positive feedback loop that has interactive and social consequences that go well beyond just the two individuals involved in a dyadic interaction. In fact, what the book shows is why the effects of oxytocin happen, when they happen, and how we can make them happen more frequently in society at large. In a tour de force of investigative science, the author's primary conclusion is that in "intensely social creatures" Oxytocin works like a gyroscope, balancing behavior between trust and distrust.

He uses the first half of the book to identify, and convincingly demonstrate, that there is a causal chain that links oxytocin to empathy and empathy to morality and trust, and morality and trust to economic and social success and development. He uses the second half of the book to further examine the consequences of the other links in this chain and their respective impacts on society and societal institutions, at large, especially on the institutions of religion and business, in particular.

And even though I was much less impressed with the way the author tried to extend his thesis to society at large, primarily to religion and business interactions via argumentation, this section was thought-provoking and did indeed leave ample food for thought, that surely enterprising graduate students will seize upon and take up as their Master's or PhD thesis topics. Five stars.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Let's say that you have volunteered for a "trust game" experiment. You (and an anonymously assigned partner) will (each) be given a sum of money - say, $20. From there, you have the option of giving your partner some of your money, and for each dollar you give her, she'll receive double (so, if you give her $5, she'll receive an extra $10). In turn, she has the option of giving some of her money to you, with the same "doubling" rule applying. The longer you take turns giving each other money from your pot, the more profitable the game becomes. But wait: can you be at all sure that your "gift" to your partner will be reciprocated? Is it best to just get as much as you can and NOT reciprocate?

This is the game that built Paul Zak's career. Zak is a "neuroeconomist" (really, the first neuroeconomist). He has had people play this game in a myriad of settings, and when he does, he takes a blood sample both before they play and after they play (and sometimes, after each turn). In so doing, this "vampire economist" wants to know whether there is a chemical or chemicals in our body that correlates with trusting behavior. And there is: oxytocin.

The basic idea of this book is to explain what oxytocin is, how it bears on our propensity to trust, and what other chemicals are in the "supporting cast" in the production we call trust. Oxytocin, briefly, is a hormone largely produced when interacting with those closest to us - our children, our partner (and to a lesser degree) our family and friends. This is the hormone, for instance, responsible for that instinctively warm feeling we get around babies (particularly our own), and that feeling that makes us want to be snuggly close to our partner. And, as it turns out, it is also a chemical that is activated any time our environment gives us a signal that it is okay to trust others.

And how do we know that this chemical largely influences our propensity to trust others? Well, Zak reports that in all studies he and colleagues have conducted, the amount each party in a trust game gives to the other correlates with the oxytocin levels in their blood. He also suggests that when our partner in a trust game elects to give money to us, we tend to experience a jump in oxytocin levels; as a result, those who are trusted are more likely to trust back. On the downside, Zak gives us a sad chapter to do with the correlation of early childhood abuse (and lack of a caring, nurturing environment) and its correlation both to 'trust issues' in later life and (surprise!) abnormal oxytocin regulation.

While oxytocin can be seen as the "trust hormone," and is certainly a hormone exhibited more highly in women - makes sense, as women have been the primary care givers in evolutionary history - males have a valuable role to play with their testosterone. If oxytocin is the "trust hormone," then testosterone is the "punish the undeserving" hormone. When we trust others, this is only good insofar as we can identify and punish "free riders" - those who accept our trust but who do not reciprocate. That is where testosterone comes in. Toward this end, Zak recounts data demonstrating not only that men are much quicker to punish others and seek revenge than women, but that this tendency correlates quite nicely with the level of testosterone in one's blood. Also, just like oxytocin tends to increase trust in trust games, testosterone increases one's trepidation to trust.

Perhaps the most controversial chapter will be the second to last - where Zak suggests that markets, often derided for rewarding immorality and "crowding out" more humane motives - actually increase trust and moral behavior among people. Really, markets give us all chances to interact with others, and even though our interactions involve money, the very act of reciprocating in a market transaction increases our tendency to trust others. Contra recent suggestions by Michael Sandel in What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, suggesting that the act of putting price tags on things crowds out other, more genuine, motives like charity, civic duty, etc, Zak suggests that markets tend to make us behave more morally, by turning what could be non-zero-sum situations (I give x charitably, but receive nothing in return) to positive-sum situations (I give x and you reciprocate by giving y).

Zak is a great writer, and the book is written in a very conversational way, while still laying out a solid case. If there is a flaw in the book, I wonder if Zak doesn't, at times, go a bit overboard in his excitement to reduce morality to the study of oxytocin, testosterone, and the "supporting cast" of chemicals. Certainly, he makes a great case that these are valuable players, surely studying these alone will not explain the WHOLE of moral philosophy - why certain moral codes look particularly the way they do, what the appropriate balance is between how much to trust others and how skeptical to be of them, etc. I am sure this is not quite what Zak meant, but his writing gets exuberant at times, as if he does want to suggest that oxytocin and testosterone explain it all.

Oh, and if you are curious to read more about how oxytocin works in the brain, check out neurophilosopher Pat Churchland's work Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Atlanta, Georgia- We all have a sixth sense in regards t new people we meet. We decide that some seem ok and others a little squirrelly. Why is that?
Now you can get the scoop from author Paul Zak, also known as "Dr. Love", in his research he has discovered that the Oxytocin, a reproductive hormone that has long been associated with breast feeding, sex, and bonding of mothers and babies plays a role in trust.
In his book, The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity by Paul J. Zak shares his research in a new field called "neuroeconmics' which incorporated the methods of brain science in studying social behavior.
Another nickname that Zak has also received is "vampire". He takes the blood, pre and post events to check Oxytocin levels. One place he did this was at a wedding, a usually very happy event.
This book is fascinating and is writing in simple terms that even someone without a PhD can understand. This work is sure to valuable insight into could lead to a better understanding of each other and eventually a more loving planet. This trust factor goes hand in hand with prosperity an overall happiness.
Book Facts:
The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity by Paul J. Zak
2012 Duton 255 pp
ISBN: 978-0-525-95281-7
Follow Dr. Paul Zak on twitter: @pauljzak or visit [...]
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2012
I'm a graduate student myself doing some research on oxytocin and heard Dr. Zak speak at a symposium. He was a great speaker, so I thought it was worth checking out his book. I'm really glad I did. The book made reference to some seminal research in oxytocin studies as well as offered some of his own studies in creative and fun ways. If one is curious about where research is going in oxytocin as well as to learn some fun tips such as "eight hugs a day", it's a great read.

Dr. Zak frequently makes references to projects he has made domestically and internationally that help illustrate the role of oxytocin in trust and bonding. These case studies of sorts help add a practical element to where we may see oxytocin's role in everyday life. Again, this makes the book quite accessible to range of readers, especially for those who aren't going to spend hours in the library doing their own research, or for those who just want a head start on where to look.

The only reason why I hesitate to give the fifth star is that I would have appreciated some references to published articles on some of the research, especially some of Dr. Zak's. While there is a reference section at the end of the book, it seemed to be missing some research article references. This may be due to the fact that some of the research may not be published yet as this book has just come out. If there is a second edition, I would really appreciate seeing this.

As a Christian myself, I had some concerns with some of his conclusions on faith that I simply respectfully disagree. This was not a reason for me to lower a star though, as Dr. Zak is mostly reasonable and respectful in his discourse talking about some of the benefits and costs to organized religion.

All in all, this book is a great read and I highly recommend it! As one important caveat though: correlation does not equal causation. Just because these trends are seen, doesn't mean that it's "case closed". Science will continue to test and retest some of the hypotheses and trends presented in this book. That being said, these are exciting trends seen in oxytocin research and it's a worthy molecule to keep studying. I'm sure Dr. Zak would agree.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on May 25, 2012
The storytelling is terrific and illuminates so many aspects of the what it means to be human. This and Daniel Levitin's The World in Six Songs are my favorite science-based books in a long time. Paul Zak delivers quite a lot of wisdom in this book, with a considerable sense of humor and a deeply driven inquisitive mind. I found myself saying "Wow" on page after page.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 7, 2012
Watch Paul Zak's TED talk on oxytocin to get the gist of the first third of this book: how he took blood samples at a wedding and how oxytoxin is triggered even through an online chat with a romantic partner. The book's last few chapters are what really sets it apart from the video and Zak's recent column in the Wall Street Journal. He writes about how the science of oxytocin and trust is relevant to businesses (he is an economist, after all), education, and everyday life. My favorite anecdote from that section is how Commerce Bank made its primary criteria for employment "smiling in a resting state."
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 15, 2012
This is an excellent book. It is easy to read and understand. It helps to understand the research that Dr. Paul Zak has done on Oxytocin, a chemical that is in our blood and affects our behavior. He demonstrates how a surge in this chemical affects how we trust others. He states that something as simple as a hug increases ones feeling of happiness, love, and trust. It not only increases the trust between individuals, but can increase trust between different "tribes" and different nations.

Makes me think that all Congressional sessions should begin, not with prayer by a chaplain, but by all people who are "across the aisle" crossing the aisle to give hugs to those on the other side. I think if you hugged someone and if you have gotten your hit of Oxytocin, it might go far in changing the political climate in Washington. Hey, it might work and it doesn't increase our taxes one cent.
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