SoundSeen: Chris Farrell Puts Neuroeconomics and “Cleansing” in Focus
Trent Gilliss, online editor
The production tour for this week’s program with Paul Zak was rather circuitous. After Krista’s interview in late March, schedules and time lines became hectic and we had resigned ourselves to the fact that it wasn’t going to make for an hour-long production. A couple months later, Kate, our managing producer, asked about the interview and thought it was worth reviewing with fresh ears. Fortunately, she did, and we now have a program.
"Economists talk of the cleansing effect of recessions. So recessions are necessary because they kind of cull out the companies that are not providing the best customer service, that are not making a profit, that are not providing some product or service that people need. And when those businesses go out of business, then those resources are redeployed to more important uses. The machines are reused; the people get different jobs. And so this keeps the economy kind of efficient. We don’t want to kind of limp along and have high levels of inefficiency just because we love the name General Motors or love the name of some company if they can’t kind of keep up with the herd. So competition drives that and that’s an important part of maintaining efficiency.
But I think the same thing can happen in individual lives. I think as we get towards the end of every boom period, today or two years ago, the end of the 1990s and dot-com bubble, the end of the ’80s and this kind of “me,” “greed” generation, I think we do get out of whack because human beings are adaptable and we are watching what other humans are doing. We also become adaptable to this sort of yuppie, ‘more stuff for me’ lifestyle.
So I think, from a spiritual perspective, that recessions are also cleansing. So I think it’s very important that we don’t shy away from recessions and we don’t try to outlaw them. I think we should say, ‘Hey, there were excesses. This is how the excesses are corrected. And the excesses were both kind of on the macro level and even perhaps in my own life. Maybe I got a little over-excited about the extra bonuses I was getting and the bigger car. And now I want to sit down and reevaluate what’s really important to me.’ So I think there are great analogies between the micro and the macro, and we should embrace that.”
These are bold statements that have implications. So, after our final editorial session, I suggested that perhaps Krista might ask Chris Farrell, APM’s resident expert on economics and all things financial, for a broader perspective on the field of neuroeconomics and its place within the larger world of economics. And, more explicitly, Krista asked Chris about his view of Zak’s perspective on moments of economic and moral “cleansing.” Chris’s historical and critical analysis I found helpful, and surprising.
I’m not sure if there are absolute right or wrong answers to this final point, but there are consequences. How do you think about this?
My Oxytocin Moment
Colleen Scheck, Producer
Our immersion into the world of neuroscience for this week’s program with Paul Zak has given me a label for one of the uplifting parts of my weekdays — my “oxytocin moment.” It’s the moment I exit work to pick up my 7-month-old son. Walking to the car, a rush of energy, excitement, and warmth comes over me as I eagerly anticipate how his smile widens when he recognizes me, and the giggle that bubbles up when I hug him and tickle him under the chin. I can’t get to him fast enough, and I’m certain one day a fender-bender will be the result of my mad dash to exit work and pick him up.
So now I interpret that rush to be a surge of oxytocin in my brain. The hormone has long been known for its role in childbirth and the mother/child bonding process that I acutely experience these days. But as Zak’s research is showing, it has other profound influences on broader social behavior, including our ability to trust. Since my brain fails to fire the neurons needed to comprehend neuroscience, I went looking for easily digestible descriptions of his work, and found a few helpful things.
His article, "The Neurobiology of Trust," in the June 2008 issue of Scientific American is a helpful overview, with simple visuals, of how he became interested in oxytocin’s relation to trust, how his experiment — the “Trust Game” — was conducted and its findings, and some of the implications of his research. Besides its impact on the field of economics, I’ll be curious to see if future insights emerge about oxytocin’s relationship to neurological disorders like schizophrenia or maladies such as social anxiety.
Also helpful, and fun, was a 2005 television segment from the Australian Broadcasting Company science program Catalyst. The reporter participates in Zak’s trust game as well as a related experiment using MRI imaging of his brain. He talks to Zak and other scientists about the biology of trust, from primates to humans.
And, given my current life status as a new mom, I enjoyed stumbling upon Hug the Monkey, a blog about the latest research and issues around oxytocin’s best-known function by science and technical writer Susan Kuchinskas.
The Arts Drive It Home for Me
Krista Tippett, host
One hangover from living for a time in England is that I am a devotee of BBC radio plays. Thanks to the wonderful world of the Internet, I can continue to listen. I’ll often put a play on in the background as I fold laundry or pay bills or even do busy work in the office.
This week, while we’ve been producing a program on the new science of “neuroeconomics” — exploring the physiology of trust and virtue in economic life — I stumbled on a series in this week’s BBC 4 “Afternoon Plays.” They deal with the human dynamics behind the Enron collapse — a subject on which our neuroeconomist guest Paul Zak has done extensive research.
These two plays were written by a noted British economics correspondent. The first, "Power Play," includes tapes from Senate hearings and the voice of figures like Enron’s CEO Kenneth Lay. The second, "Wilful Blindness," revolves around imagined discussions between Kenneth Lay and a former employee who turns up as his gardener in his Aspen home after this conviction.
I found intriguing echoes here with some of the insights not only of Paul Zak but also of Darius Rejali. A discussion between the gardener and the CEO about how good people are drawn into doing bad things is a wonderful example of how the arts can drive home big ideas as well as any erudite analysis — or illustrate them so that we can truly grasp them.
But, you better listen fast. The material goes offline in a few days!