Paul J. Zak: doing the math on trust

Posted: 03/28/2017 - 06:47

Paul J. Zak is answering age-old questions about the evolutionary and scientific - actually neuroscientific - basis for identifying and establishing trust. For example, why do people trust each other in the first place? Is there a natural inclination to trust? Does location and/or ethnicity matter when it comes to trust? What does this mean for businesses and their employee relations?

Zak is uniquely qualified in this arena: he is the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, which investigates the neurophysiology of economic decisions. He is also a professor of economics, psychology, and management at California’s Claremont Graduate University.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, 'The Neuroscience of Trust', Zak asserts that his research has found that “building a culture of trust is what makes a meaningful difference. Employees in high-trust organisations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.”

Business leaders understand the high stakes of trust. He cited a 2016 global CEO survey, that found that 55 percent of CEOs think that a lack of trust is a threat to their organizations’ growth. But getting from point A to point B in the trust growth continuum is the rub.

Enter Zak. In the HBR article he articulates a “science-based” framework designed to help those CEOs deal with trust issues. His first step is to look at the science behind the framework.

In 2001 Zak (and the economist Stephen Knack) derived a mathematical relationship between trust and performance in a paper for The Economic Journal (2001, vol. 111, issue 470, pages 295-321). In the HBR article, Zak admitted he could not answer the most basic question: why do two people trust each other? “Experiments around the world have shown that humans are naturally inclined to trust others - but don’t always. I hypothesised that there must be a neurologic signal that indicates when we should trust someone.”

He began a long-term research program to discover more about that signal. It seems that in rodents a brain chemical called oxytocin had been shown to signal that another animal was safe to approach: “I wondered if that was the case in humans, too.”

To prove that trust and oxytocin were linked a series of studies were carried out in which participants had blood samples taken immediately after they had made the decision to trust someone. The experiment also allowed for increasing levels of trust. The results proved Zak’s hypothesis, that oxytocin was linked to trust and the more trust the more oxytocin was produced. This resulted in higher levels of happiness for the participants that had chosen trust.

The possibility that the link between trust and oxytocin being coincidental was also tested by administering synthetic oxytocin and observing how trusting the participants became, again a strong link was identified. Finally, to see if the trust and oxytocin link was evolutionary and universal, or a more recent phenomenon, similar experiments were carried out on tribes in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. The same results were found, trust created happiness across all experiments (for those with a statistical bent the correlation was very high at 0.77, a sufficient statistic).

In the HBR article, Zak distilled his findings into a list of management behaviours that can help facilitate trust and gain the neurochemical benefits described in his research:

  • Recognise excellence
  • Induce “challenge stress”
  • Give people discretion in how they do their work
  • Enable job crafting
  • Share information broadly
  • Intentionally build relationships
  • Facilitate whole-person growth
  • Show vulnerability

“High-trust companies hold people accountable but without micromanaging them. They treat people like responsible adults,” writes Zak.

It seems a bit strange to see trust expressed as a chemical in the brain and a series of measurement equations in an Economic Journal article, but the result that Zak brings us to, in my view, is a Vested, collaborative and relational approach to organisational dynamics. Getting a handle on trust and how it works is a worthy exercise for any business striving to increase trust, collaboration, value and innovation throughout the organisation.

About The Author

Kate Vitasek's picture

Kate Vitasek is an international authority for her award-winning research and Vested business model for highly collaborative relationships. She is the author of six books on the Vested model and a faculty member at the University of Tennessee. She has been lauded by World Trade Magazine as one of the “Fabulous 50+1” most influential people impacting global commerce.