Over a microphone, neuroeconomist Paul Zak is exhorting 500 New Yorkers to give more love. “Everyone has to hug at least one stranger by the end of tonight,” he insists, “No creepy hugs, please.” We’re at the luridly named “Love Night” at the BMW-Guggenheim Lab on a Friday night, to be test subjects for experiments in what triggers our brains to trust. Zak (above) wraps the guy next to him in a bear hug, and the heart-shaped, heat-sensitive cutout on his T-shirt turns neon green. That starts a hugging orgy that lasts for the next three hours.
Zak got the name “Doctor Love” from looking at how oxytocin–simply put, it’s the brain chemical that makes people cuddle and bond–affects people’s economic decisions. The chief-architect of “Love Night,” Zak has to convince this roomful of hipsters, academics, and the most hardened of New Yorkers that a hug–or anything that jump-starts our brains’ love circuitry–is a powerful thing. Applied to business, it means that when people really connect with those they work with, they’ll feel more committed to the ideas that they’re making happen together, Zak says. To prove his point, he greets me by sweeping me up with a hug so strong that it almost hurts.
“There’s a science behind creating a world that is happier and more profitable,” says Zak, a Claremont Graduate University professor who takes his research team go-cart racing and holds beer parties in his lab. “It’s can be as simple as eight hugs a day.”
More thoroughly explained, oxytocin has been popularized as the love-molecule that gets people empathetic and generous. It’s the chemical that motivates mothers to care for their children, or inspires two strangers to connect. Oxytocin release is a virtuous cycle: The more of this cuddle-molecule your brain pumps out, the more your brain is triggered to release it. A hug is one way to start this oxytocin loop, says Zak.
Another way is to create an environment where people know it’s all right to be connecting. Google does this by establishing ping-pong tables and snack areas in its offices. After all, happier people tend to be more invested in their projects and customers, the thinking goes. “As much as it is intuitively obvious that there are effects from how you design your work environment, there’s a science behind it,” Zak says, “That includes whether there’s beer in the fridge in the office.”
In a corner at the Guggenheim lab this Friday night, 50 people are arguing about how to build the ideal city. They’re playing Urbanology, a game in which they have to resolve and vote on real-world urban dilemmas. Some of the topics being debated: Should a city have dog-free zones? Should lawmakers be allowed to debate whether gay people should be banned from kissing in public? A couple of people jump in with some lively Detroit-bashing. After an algorithm calculates the net effect of everyone’s decisions, it turns out that they’ve collectively built a city with “the lifestyle of Abu Dhabi, the sustainability of Johannesburg, and the transportation of Mexico City.” But deeper into the night, as more people get oxytocin-high from all the hugging, the cities they build are a little kinder and greener.
In the garden, a psychologist is making pairs of strangers to walk toward each other till they get almost too close for comfort. He’s also attached cuffs to their hands to measure activity in their sweat glands and determine their states of arousal. Each time a pair gets into one another’s face, their arousal spikes, indicating they’re feeling more alive and responsive.
In another corner, a large screen is projecting hopes and fears people have anonymously jotted down and dropped into a box. The desires are startlingly basic, and similar. Why is everyone saying they hope to find love, or that they want to make it in New York City? Maybe it’s something about living in a city that pulses with so much life, and yet can be so indifferent. Part of this exercise is to show that it’s cathartic to be able to share our thoughts freely with one another. And that’s food for thought on how to build a workplace. “There are real chemical effects that are measurable and which you can manipulate,” says Zak. By the end of the night, he’s dispensed 100 hugs. “Completely wiped out,” he says.
Ten years ago, Zak wouldn’t have been comfortable brandishing the L-word so freely. Oxytocin was a hormone known mostly just in ob-gyn circles. After years of measuring blood samples and churning out peer-reviewed research, he’s more at ease with proselytizing about the love-drug. But neuroeconomics, which studies the interplay between economic decisions and our brain’s mechanisms, still remains a young field. It’s difficult to study people outside a controlled lab setting–or convince the whole academic community that this isn’t the stuff of pop-science.
Emanuele Castano, a New School social psychology professor who tried to carry out experiments on Love Night, knows that field tests are no cakewalk. For fun, he’s testing whether people are more likely to trust strangers when they’re holding a warm rather than a cold drink. The hypothesis: Those who feel the warmth from cups of hot cocoas in their hands will score higher on trust, and agree to fill out a survey given out by a stranger. There was just one problem: His control group was skewed. “Everyone was just too trusting from all the hugging,” he sighs.
[Image: Matthew Stanton]
Dawn Lim has reported about tech for Dow Jones MarketWatch, Wired, and NextGov. You can find Dawn on Twitter at: Twitter.com/dawnmlim.