Paul Zak —
The Science of Trust: Economics and Virtue

In a few breathtaking months, we've culturally moved from seeing Wall Street as an icon of thriving civil society to discussing its workings with book titles like House of Cards and Animal Spirits. As part of our ongoing Repossessing Virtue series, we look at what science is learning about trust, fair play, and empathy — and what these qualities have to do with human character and economics.

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is professor of Economics and director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California. He's editor of Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy.

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"Neuroeconomics in Context" with Chris Farrell

After we produced this program, Krista sat down with Chris Farrell, APM's chief economics correspondent, to get a broader perspective on the field of neuroeconomics.

Repossessing Virtue

Esther Sternberg (stress researcher)

On the Economic Crisis in Biological Terms

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We spoke with Dr. Sternberg for our Repossessing Virtue series on the moral and spiritual aspects of the economic crisis. She describes it as a "perfect storm" for stress, and suggests ways to alleviate stress and improve our personal and communal health.

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An investor watches the trading board at an office in Seoul, South Korea.

Photo by Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP/Getty Images

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I was struck reading your interview with Paul Zak, because after many years of hiding my head in the sands of literature and religion, I've gotten interested in the role of economics and its place in the world of spirituality and religion. I've read Paul Hawken's books and am also reading The GIft: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde, which is in part an anthropological analysis of the distinction between the market economy and the gift economy. I'd love to hear an interview with either of these fascinating writers.

What a great show!

Best wishes,
Heather Kohout


Allow me to begin by paying you a huge compliment. While listening to you conduct an interview, you often remind me of Bill Moyers! I have read so much of what you have read and what Moyers has read that I often feel as if I know why you asked a question and what led you to that question. So I find myself smiling at the two of you and loving you for asking a question that I would have loved to have asked. You both are a gift.

I now come to your two interviews today with Chris Farrell and Paul Zak about economics. I majored in economics in college some 40 years ago and have maintained an interest ever since. I would no sooner challenge either of your guests about economics than I would challenge you about spirituality. But I have read a lot about both subjects and noticed a failure of you and Chris to align on one of your questions, a very good question.

You asked Chris what he thought of Paul's statement about a recession being a cleansing. My economic mind immediately shifted gears to my mythological/mystic mindset and thought of the word catharsis (I bet yours did too). Chris seemed to interpret cleansing as Joseph Schumpeter's destruction of the weak and the pains of those destroyed. Chris, the economist, sees the suffering in Schumpeter's Darwinian approach while the mythologist sees the monomyth -- birth, death, rebirth or light from darkness. What an intriguing juxtaposition! I think of Chris, the reasoned economist, as Reinhold Niebuhr's moral sentimentalist -- wow! I see Paul, the reasoned scientist, seeing through the eyes of a Meister Eckhart or maybe even a Krista -- detached, not without compassion but detached.

In closing, allow the economist in me to speak out. We have government and its laws to tether man. We learned long ago that man without a tether will be the snake that eats his own tail. The mess we are in today is a result of man without a tether and government failing to do the job it was created to do.

Krista, you are a brave girl to dip your toe in economics and I admire your gall. I think there must be some gall there... I think.

I just read a book by a neurologist that I bet you have read: On Being Certain, Robert Burton.

For some unknown reason this quote came to mind: "Every act of creation is first an act of destruction." ~ Pablo Picasso

You're great!


Your piece on Paul Zac coincides with the publication of the new Encyclical 'Caritas in Veritate, AND with the reprint of a 1997 book of profound theological reflection - 'Grace and Mortgage - the language of faith and the debt of the world' by Peter Selby until last year, Anglican Bp of Worcester, UK. If a transatlantic interview is possible, I believe his eloquence and the gravitas of his contribution would fit the soaring quality of your broadcasts. To that end I give you his email. [ ] He is an occasional visitor to the States so that might provide another opportunity. If contacting him, it would be fine to speak of my enthusiastic advocacy. Note - I used Mass. as my state becaause the site gives no scope for a UK region Canon Peter Challen Chair of the Christian Council for Monetary Reform

How much is trust needed in the economic system? When the Society of Friends began they were not allowed to practice law and of course they could not be part of the established religion. Other than farming, Friends went into business and science. They succeeded in business in part because they were trusted. I wonder if this type of history of trustworthy business people in the UK helped support the ideas of Adam Smith?

I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion with Paul Zak. A few questions came up which would be interesting to discuss further.

1) How does the trust response change with exposure to prolonged stress? I think about the millions of people who live on less than $2/day and wonder how their brain chemistry may or may not be modified by such prolonged exposure to stress.

2) I wonder how societies such as Rwanda or South Africa that have endured such horrific trauma come to develop such helpful mechanisms as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

3) He mentioned that those who struggle with social anxiety disorder are somehow unable to be affected by oxytocin. Given that the amygdala is central to our fear and anxiety response I wonder how oxytocin interacts with the amygdala.

Great show. Keep up the good work.


Dr. Zach says that his research shows that oxytocin levels rise in the brain when trust exists. Has he done any research into how they drop when trust is destroyed or at least, seriously damaged?
Trust is essential to any human inter-relationship, including with the Great Holy. But we all know instances where someone's faith is shattered, or at least, seriously damaged, by some incident which the majority culture calls "an act of God". It would be interesting to see how oxytocin levels differ in people of absolute faith from those who are, say, atheistic, particularly if those in each group have been thru similar faith-shattering incidents & the atheism occurred after the incident.
The same could be researched in romantic relationships, or those where a parent abuses 1 or more children in a family.

I just listented to the Science of Trust (July 9 3009) show. Great show, especially since I listened to "Inside Job" on NPR's This American Life on Saturday. It would be interesting to hear Dr. Zak's comments on the hedge fund managers highlighted in the "Inside Job" story.