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How to Improve Your Writing: 5 Secrets From Hollywood

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Thanks to the internet, people are reading and writing more than ever. But is it me, or does it seem like the quality of that writing has gotten worse?

However, this can be a good thing. These days, solid writing really stands out. It can be a competitive advantage in anything you do.

Want to know how to improve your writing? Or have you ever thought about crafting the next great novel or screenplay? Want to know how to write like a pro?

Me, too. So I called my buddy Andy.

Andrew Kevin Walker wrote the blockbuster Seven, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. Here’s the trailer:

Andy was also a writer on many other big projects including Sleepy Hollow, The Hire, and Fight Club (you might notice in the credits that the three cops who attack Edward Norton are named “Andrew”, “Kevin” and “Walker.”)

His new book is Old Man Johnson.

Below you’ll learn:

  1. The thing that immediately tells readers you’re a good writer.
  2. How to surprise your audience.
  3. The mindset you need to write like a pro.
  4. The secret to effective collaboration.
  5. How to make readers feel something when they read your work.

And much, much more. Alright, ramblers, let’s get ramblin’…


1) How To Improve Your Writing

Andy recommends two things you can do to vastly improve your writing — whether you’re writing an email, a presentation for work or a screenplay for Hollywood. What’s the first one? Here’s Andy:

When I’m reading something, what lets me know if I’m in good hands or not is whether there’s a sense of structure to it.

Do you have a beginning, a middle and an ending? Does one build on the other? Is there a sense this is going somewhere? Does it seem like you have really thought this through? Here’s Andy:

Knowing where you’re going is key. If you don’t, how can you know what your theme is? How can you foreshadow anything? When you know what your ending is, then you know what you’re writing. It may change as you’re writing but I really feel like you have to have a “true north” that you’re heading toward — and that “true north” is your ending. You don’t have to know every detail of it. With Seven I always knew that there were going to be seven deadly sin murders. Therein lay the structure of it. Good cop was gonna become “wrath” in the end. With that I had a skeleton on which to build the spine of the story.

And other experts agree. When I interviewed UCLA Film School professor Howard Suber, he said structure was vital.

Good stories are built on the word “but”, not the word “and.” This insures that there are twists and turns, and a relationship between what came before and what will come after.

What’s the second thing you need to do? Revise. First drafts are never final drafts. Here’s Andy:

That golden rule that “writing is rewriting” gets ignored a lot. Completing it is one thing, but then going back to the beginning and completing it again is the most important part of the process. In fact, I would say “completing it again and again.” You should rewrite your rewriting too.

When I spoke with Harvard professor Steven Pinker, he said the same thing. Here’s Steven:

Much advice on good writing is really advice on revising. Because very few people are smart enough to be able to lay down some semblance of an argument and to express it in clear prose at the same time. Most writers require two passes to accomplish that. And after they’ve got the ideas down, now it’s time to refine and polish. Because the order in which ideas occur to a writer is seldom the same as the order that are best digested by a reader. And often, good writing requires a revising and rearranging the order of what you introduce so that the reader can easily follow it.

(To learn the good work habits that all geniuses have in common click here.)

Structure and revising will definitely improve your writing. But what gets the attention of an audience, especially in this age of zero attention span? You gotta surprise ’em. Here’s how…


2) How To Surprise The Reader

Surprise is about defying expectations. So to do it you must first know what your audience expects from the type of writing you’re doing. This is true for everything from PowerPoint presentations to creative essays.

Know your “genre” and what your audience expects and you’ll know what you need to do to surprise them. Here’s Andy:

It’s only by being aware of genre and audience expectations that you can really surprise people… Best example for Seven was taking a movie that’s about characters who desperately want to catch a murderer and an audience that’s awaiting the cathartic moment of capture — and then having the killer turn himself in. Stealing that catharsis from the audience and sucking all the air out of the room so that the characters — and now the audience — are off-balance. And then everyone is going, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

That shocking moment (NSFW) is here:

And UCLA Film School professor Howard Suber says this sort of surprise is essential to creating engaging writing. Here’s Howard:

Without the surprise, without the twist, if you don’t pull the wool over the audience’s eyes, then it’s unlikely you’re going to be memorable. It’s precisely the fact that things are not what they seem that makes a story interesting.

(For more on how to be a great writer from Harvard’s Steven Pinker click here.)

Okay, so you’ve got structure, you’re revising your work and incorporating surprise. That can definitely improve your writing. But what does it take to write like apro?


3) How To Write Like A Professional

Are you enjoying putting those words on the page? Is it making you smile? Congrats, you’re screwing up. Here’s Andy:

When you’re writing, if you’re super happy and having a fun time — you’re probably doing something wrong. Good writing means being a perfectionist. And that means being at least semi-miserable. But that’s a good thing. Perfectionism leads to rewriting. Now you can get so depressed over writing that you get in your own way, but a happy writer probably isn’t pushing themselves hard enough.

Sound crazy? Research shows that experts emphasize the negative. They have to. If you aren’t continually identifying what isn’t working you can’t make it better. Here’s Andy:

Before you show it to anyone else, are you really asking yourself, “Is this the absolute best it can be?” Are you being as hard on yourself as you can possibly be? Because those important reads that may get it seen by an agent or a publisher, those reads are really rare and you won’t get two of them out of the same person.

We’ve heard a lot about “flow.” Flow is pleasurable — but it doesn’t make you better. As Georgetown professor Cal Newport explains, it’s “deliberate practice” that improves skills. And that means you’re always working at the edge of your comfort zone, not in a blissful state of flow.

Okay, so you’re focusing on the negative…

But you also need to stay optimistic.

I know what you’re thinking: Huh? How the heck do you embrace negativity and also be optimistic?

If you keep emphasizing the negative, you get depressed and you quit. Research shows pessimism kills grit.

And with all the rejection and criticism in Hollywood, it’s too easy to give up. So while you have to focus on the negative while you’re writing, you need to keep some optimism cooking when you look at the big picture. Here’s Andy:

One of the most important things for any writer is to be constantly refilling their reserve of naiveté. If I weren’t as wholeheartedly naive now as I was on my first day leaving film school that I was going to achieve something in the world of screenwriting, then I wouldn’t still be doing it. It’s like selective memory. If you can’t tamp down the bad experiences you’ve had writing — and they’re numerous — almost actively forget them and refueling your optimism each time, then you’ll just stop… I’m as optimistic about writing now as I was at the beginning — which is completely delusional. Embracing delusion is really important. They say the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” But if you’re not doing that in Hollywood, you’ll never survive. It’s only the person who has the determination to keep saying “yes” in the face of all those “no’s” that will make it.

Does this sound crazy? Here’s what’s interesting: the schizophrenic mindset Andy’s describing is the same one seen in elite athletes.

Via Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success:

Doublethink is essential to the success of leading athletes and other top performers… Take top golfers…they have to make scrupulously rational choices about shot selection (laying up, for example, rather than going for the green), but once they have committed to any given shot, they have to be—indeed, they train themselves to be—irrationally optimistic about execution. Nick Faldo, the six-time major winner, made precisely this point when I interviewed him at the Open Championship in 2008. “You have to be very calculating in selecting the right shot,” he said. “You have to make a decision based upon a realistic assessment of your own weaknesses and the scope for failure. But once you have committed to your decision, you have to flick the mental switch and execute the shot as if there was never any doubt that you would nail it.”

It’s what Andy calls “the manic-depressive requirements of writing.”

So how does he do it? How do you hold matter and antimatter in your head at the same time?

Andy keeps that ruthless perfectionism brewing… but he makes sure he feels he’s making progress on a regular basis. Here’s Andy:

One of the things that’s important is to create a daily or weekly sense of completing something. I’m not going to be done with this script for months or years. It may not get made into a movie. If it does it’ll be years from now. I can’t finish this script today but I can finish sweeping the floor. I can’t finish this novel today but I can finish this submarine sandwich. I can finish this nap. Every little bit of distraction or procrastination that has closure to it is a small reward for the person whose main journey of writing has its reward so far away and on such uncertain terms.

Bestselling author Dan Pink has written about the power of these “small wins” to keep us going. Teresa Amabile’s research at Harvard shows nothing is more motivating that the feeling of progress. By building this into his schedule, Andy is able to keep going even with a mindset that is deliberately focused on the perfectionistic negative.

(To learn how Navy SEALs build grit and learn to never give up click here.)

But in many work environments writing can be a collaborative process. Hollywood is no different. So what if others are doing the writing and you need to give feedback? How do you help them improve — without insulting them?


4) The Right Way To Collaborate

Andy has worked with director David Fincher on a number of memorable films, including Seven and Fight Club. Why have their collaborations been so effective?

Because Fincher is a master at suspending his ego when giving feedback. Here’s Andy:

Fincher does a lot of things that a lot of people don’t do. He listens. He actually collaborates. He’s incredibly specific with his input. But he’s not desperate to put his stamp on something. It’s his lack of ego. Usually when you’re getting notes on a project, the person giving them is clearly motivated by having their voice heard, their ego being stoked.

When I spoke with FBI behavior expert Robin Dreeke he said the exact same thing about effectively dealing with people: Suspend your ego.

And the secret to writing well when you’re part of a team is to give others that chance to contribute in the areas where they know more than you do. Here’s Andy:

Really good actors like Morgan Freeman, and Brad and Kevin, will always take your worst stuff and make it a thousand times better than it was on the page. And so the lesson is, when it goes from the page to fruition, less is better. In the right hands, you’ll be amazed how much better it gets.

It’s only when great writing, great directing, and great acting come together that you get moments (NSFW) like this:

(For more on how to make people like you — from an FBI behavior expert — click here.)

We’ve learned a lot about solid writing. But, in the end, nothing is more powerful than moving people emotionally. How can you do that? Andy has an answer.


5) How To Make Readers Feel Something

It all comes down to one word. Here’s Andy:

Honesty is the most important ingredient.

That’s what made Seven work. Now Andy didn’t literally follow the old advice of “write what you know.” He was never a cop… or a serial killer for that matter.

But the script was honest regarding what he was feeling about New York City while he was writing it. Here’s Andy:

Seven came from a very personal place. The argument that’s taking place both internally and externally for Mills, (Brad Pitt’s character) and for Somerset (Morgan Freeman’s character) is an argument that I was having with myself, living in New York City in the late 80’s. If there’s anything that elevated it above an exploitational film, it was the stuff that came from me personally. The “write what you know” wasn’t experiences I had; I was never a policeman tracking down this terrible, murderous villain, but it was the debate over “look what this city’s become.” I was empathizing with John Doe and having him express frustrations of mine — in the worst way possible. It was an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other — and this is the argument that Mills and Somerset are having, that I was having. Morgan Freeman wants to quit and Brad never will. As a writer, I had to earn that moment where Morgan Freeman, despite his pessimism about the city, decides not to give up. And that’s what drives him to say, “I’ll be around” at the end of the movie.

(For more on how to tell great stories from a UCLA Film School professor click here.)

Okay, Andy’s told us a lot about how to be a better writer. Let’s round it all up — and learn how we can apply it to any career.


Sum Up

Here’s what Andy had to say about how to improve your writing:

  1. Structure lets readers know they’re in good hands. And finishing a draft is just the start. Writing is rewriting.
  2. Surprise comes from knowing the expectations of your audience — and then turning them on their head.
  3. The best writers know how to balance the negativity of perfectionism with the optimism that keeps them going. Making sure you have “small wins” can help.
  4. Collaboration is about suspending your ego. Stop thinking about yourself and focus on what would objectively make the piece better.
  5. Making a reader feel something is about honesty. You don’t have to come from the future to write science fiction but there does have to be something of yourself in the story for that emotion to show through.

And these ideas don’t just apply to writing. You can be an artist at anything if you take the mindset of an artist and strive to be great at whatever you do. Here’s Andy:

In the same way that there’s an art to crafting surfboards or an art to designing cars, there’s an art to pumping gas or being a garbage man. No matter how much you’re being paid or what you’re doing as a career, you need to embrace the art of it and not be afraid of the artist in you… Find the art in everything you do.

In my next weekly email I’ll have more writing tips from Andy (including the best way to find original ideas and discover your voice as a writer.) To make sure you don’t miss it, join here.

Join over 195,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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We have this deep evolutionary system that motivates us to care about complete strangers

I want to start out by telling you about a woman that I interviewed in the San Diego County jail a couple of years ago. Let me call her Lisa. Lisa had been arrested for the 13th or 14th time for possession of methamphetamine for sale. She had served time many times. And I was part of a team that was interviewing her to understand how she had gotten to where she was and if we might help her change the course of her life.

You have to imagine this tiny little room in the county jail. We’re sitting almost knee to knee, about to have a long clinical interview. She’s in an orange jumpsuit, her hands are shackled, and there’s a guard outside the door. Slowly I start talking to her, asking her questions. “When did you first start smoking marijuana?” She said age thirteen. And then I asked, “When did you first start smoking methamphetamine?” She said age thirteen.

So what’s the natural question? “Gee, what happened to you when you were 13?”

She said, “Oh, my mom was a meth user, and she wanted to have someone to party with, so she introduced me to meth.” And then she started to cry, and she said, “And now when my mother calls me in prison to say she loves me, I can’t say it back to her.”

Breaking all appropriate clinical protocol, I said, “I don’t think you have to. Your mother did a terrible thing to you.” And indeed, Lisa had been raped because of meth, she had prostituted herself to get meth, she had married a man who was a meth user who beat her regularly, once fracturing her skull. She had two teenage children who lived in a state far from her because she couldn’t care for them. And she supported herself — though she was homeless — by selling meth.

The deeper question, then, I think, is how is it possible for a mother to do something so horrendous to her child? The trivial answer is, well, her brain was addled by drugs. But when she invited her daughter to start using meth, she was not high, right? She was sober. And she made a decision, a very bad decision.

So then the larger question, which I spent about twelve years in my life trying to understand, is why do any of us treat each other well at all, particularly when no one is looking?

I’m staying at a hotel right now and all the windows in my room are open because it’s hot. My computer is in there, all my stuff is in there. It would not be hard to just walk in there and take all my stuff, right?

Why do I have the windows open? Because I have a sense somehow that it’s safe based on the environment, the people. Earlier, I sat next to this stranger, Marissa, and we were chatting. And she didn’t look stressed out or anything, even though I’m some giant stranger.

How do we do that? How do we navigate through the sea of strangers that we all live in without having something in our brains that tells us who to be around and who not to be around, who is safe and who’s not safe? That’s what we began studying around 2001.

Oxytocin, this molecule that’s classically associated with child birth and breastfeeding, is released in all kinds of settings in which humans have positive social interactions, and it plays the role of a safety-signaling molecule. So when I see Marissa, her brain releases oxytocin, she feels safe to be around me, and now we can interact with each other.

Now, if I did something scary and crazy and weird, her stress hormones would turn on and she would immediately get away from me. Part of this story is that we have this built-in ability to come together as human beings to form relationships with people we have no direct genetic relationship to, and we can extract value from those relationships.

I want to tell you a little about how we’ve actually done this science. These field studies are fun. They show that this really works in the world that we live in.

`Maybe there’s a reason why people behave nicely even when they don’t have to. There is a rich literature in social animals showing that oxytocin allows members of the same species to identify burrow-mates. This is generally done by smell. So when I see my friend Bavindra — but I don’t really see him, I smell him, and he’s in my burrow — I think, Bavindra, he is my friend, I like him. And my brain makes oxytocin and then we can affiliate; we can huddle up for warmth or for safety.

Human beings, I thought, might do the same kind of thing. We don’t initially smell each other, but we recognize through all kinds of signals like body language that someone is safe or not safe. And we can do the same thing. We can affiliate and get all the value of relationships, except as human beings we do it very broadly.

We do it all of the time. We can’t help it. On airplanes, in meetings, all the time we see people we like, they’re friendly, and we can do projects with them or we can form friendships or romantic relationships. It’s all the same molecule. But in 2001, this was really a heterodox.

One of my colleagues actually said, “Paul, this is the world’s stupidest idea. It’s a career-ending decision.” I said, okay, maybe, but there is a big animal literature, and there must be a way to measure oxytocin in humans.

He said, “It’s irrelevant, just a female hormone,” indicating that if this is for women, it can’t be that important.

This was a guy, by the way. And I said, “Yeah, but men’s brains make oxytocin too. There must be a reason why.”

He said, “It’s just residual. You know, it’s not important.”

I said, “Well, I think I can test this, and if I can test it, then I can actually determine for men and for women or for both if oxytocin really matters.”

We decided to tempt people with virtue and vice by using money. Here’s the experiment. Let’s do it, we’ll do it right now. We’ll split the room in half. So half of you guys have $10. You guys have $10, too. You get matched up by computer. We don’t do face-to-face interactions because, since it’s a reproductive hormone, imagine if you’re sitting across from a cute guy or girl, of course you will be totally nice to them. We know that. We don’t want that confound. You’re matched by computer to somebody. You’ll have ten dollars and you’re randomly assigned in this pairing. And it says you’re first decision-maker or you’re second decision-maker. And here’s the task: If you are first decision-maker, you can give up some of your $10, ship it by computer to the other person you are matched to.

You can’t see them, you can’t talk to them, you make just one decision. Whatever you send comes out of your account and gets tripled in the other person’s account. Then the second person gets a message by computer saying, “Person 1 sent you say $15. With the $10 you got for joining the study, you now have $25. Do you want to keep it all, or send some amount back?” No one will know, you get paid in a different building. You’re totally in private.

So the standard view in economics was that if you’re Person 2, money is good. I think it’s a sort of caveman economics: “Oh, money good, me keep money.” It almost never happens in these experiments. What we see happening is that the more money someone sends you, the more money you tend to return to that person.

Person 1 has to sacrifice to make Person 2 better off. What do they expect you to do? Share the money with me, all right, and almost everybody does that. We didn’t care how people feel, we just followed the money. A kind of a Jerry Maguire approach to research: Show me the money, I’ll show you what I care about.

We did blood draws before and after, and we found that the more money you received as the second person in this transaction, the more your brain made oxytocin, and the more oxytocin your brain made, the more money you reciprocated.

This is actually really amazing. This basically blows up all standard economics, and it tells us something important about human nature: Oxytocin is the biological basis for the golden rule.

You play nice with me, I’ll play nice with you — usually. And the “usually” is where the story gets interesting, so I’ll get to that in a minute.

So we’ve done this now for hundreds of people, and in 95 percent of them, their brains make oxytocin and they reciprocate the money.

The next question we asked was, is this just a trust molecule or does it apply to a larger set of moral behaviors? I’m using the word “moral” here in an agnostic sense. I have no religious or philosophical tradition that I’m trying to support. I just mean those social behaviors that we recognize as positive: social behaviors like generosity, trustworthiness, honesty, compassion.

I’m going to study all the behaviors I can. I have a great tool now, and actually oxytocin is hard to measure and has a very short half-life — it is a quick on/off switch. Meaning, if I cause your brain to release oxytocin and you trust me, you don’t leave that switch on because you might run into some bad guy, and this guy might steal all your money.

So we had to do very rapid blood draws. Oxytocin degrades at room temperatures. You have to get the blood fast to keep them cold. So we have to work out these kinds of protocols that now everybody uses, which is great. But it wasn’t an obvious thing when we started.

And I should say lastly that the oxytocin in your blood actually reflects what’s going on in your brain because oxytocin is an evolutionarily old molecule. It actually pre-dates mammals. And we can see in humans we have many more receptors — particularly in the front of the brain — for oxytocin. We’re kind of hyper-social. We are social with people we don’t even know, and it’s because we’re much more sensitive to oxytocin.

We studied that by just changing these tasks over and over and over until we could figure out when this effect kicked in and when it didn’t. In addition, because nothing in the brain or the body happens in isolation, we wanted to make sure that we could actually show a direct causal relationship between oxytocin and these moral behaviors.

We did that by manipulating the oxytocin system. We took these really big drills and we drilled into people… No, we didn’t do that. Instead, we developed this nasal inhaler with which you can spray oxytocin in your brain, it will actually go in your sinuses and kind of leak into brain after about an hour. And it turns out that when you give people intranasal oxytocin, we can turn on moral behaviors like opening up a garden hose. They just spurt out.

People know what they’re doing with others, they just don’t care as much about their own welfare and care more about others. So I think oxytocin is this little molecule that evolved in mammals to motivate care for offspring, and when your brain releases oxytocin, it’s signaling that I’m a member of your family. So it causes us to treat strangers like family, and that’s really beautiful.

We have this deep evolutionary system that motivates us to care about complete strangers.

One of the questions that we asked was, what is the feeling that people have when their brains make oxytocin? Could you tell your brain was making it? The short answer is no, but let me tell you how we discovered it. I had a graduate student in my lab, now a faculty member at Claremont, who’s a social psychologist. He said that in social psychology, we use all kind of things like videos to try to change people’s social states. I wonder if it changes people’s physiologic states, too?

Well, I’m not so keen on that because I don’t want to rely on people telling me how they feel. I’m more interested in behavior. Anyway, he presented this little video that he got from St. Jude Children’s Hospital about a little boy with cancer, and the video runs 100 seconds. I’m not going to play it for you today because the last time I played was at a law conference at UCLA, and several lawyers actually cried when they saw it, and you guys are aware lawyers don’t have souls, right?

So, you nice people would definitely cry, too. It’s quite sad and it’s actually a real case. The little boy’s name is Ben and he died of terminal brain cancer. So it’s emotional, and we took blood before and after and people watched this video and then did these same share-the-money tasks. What we found was that the more oxytocin your brain made, the more empathic you felt towards Ben and his father; you felt emotionally connected to them. So that’s really interesting. And, people who watched the video were generous towards others and to a childhood cancer charity.

So now we have this underlying psychological mechanism that the physiology induces. For example, it’s not that I don’t want to steal Bavindra’s phone — I really do — it’s just that I’m going to feel bad if I do that. And then he’ll feel bad. If I’m a social creature, and if I have any sense of empathy, I’m going to feel bad because he feels bad and then that feeling makes me not want to steal from him.

I think that’s the same reason why in our studies people donate money to childhood cancer charity. When people’s brains release oxytocin, they’re giving up their money — even though we’re torturing them with needles and all kinds of things, they’re giving their money to the childhood cancer charity, not because they can fix Ben, but because they feel terrible that a child was suffering. Again this is a really beautiful thing about human beings — that we care about people at a distance. It’s not just the face-to-face interactions; it’s really the connection to the entire human family.

So why are people moral? What’s the punch line? We can think of three ideas. One is that we’re moral because God made us that way. So as a scientist, I don’t know if God exists or not, it’s not my place to say that; if that works, fine. I’m just not going to go there. Well, we’re going to go halfway there — I’ll tell you about that later.

The second is the government is watching us. Big Brother is here. There must be cameras in this room somewhere, we’re all being recorded, the NSA knows everything we’re doing. I can’t cheat because I’ll get caught, right? Well, these experiments give people a lot of privacy, you can do whatever you want to do, and honestly there are all kinds of situations we’re in which no one knows what we’re doing.

And the last idea is that, as social creatures, we actually care about what the other humans think about us. You know, we say we don’t, but of course we do. And this idea actually is quite old and traces back to Adam Smith, who you guys may remember from Econ 101. He wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776. It turns out The Wealth of Nations was his second-best book. His best book was written 17 years earlier. It was called a The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It turns out Smith was a moral philosopher, and he was a kind of a nobody in Scotland — no one heard about him. He writes this book in 1759, and Smith becomes an absolute rock star in Europe.

He’s having dinner with the king of France, he’s hanging out with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin. He developed the first fully terrestrial theory of why people are moral, and he said, “Why are we moral?” Because we have what he called “fellow feeling.” If I do something to hurt somebody, I share that emotion. Since I don’t like pain, I avoid doing those things.

If I do something that brings you joy, I get to share that joy. I like doing that. So most of the time, I’m going to behave in a way that keeps me embedded in the social fabric in which I am. So why is this Smith’s best book? Because he revised The Wealth of Nations three times, he revised The Theory of Moral Sentiments six times, including on his deathbed. He thought it was his more important work.

We have this sense of emotional connection to others which works as sort of a moral compass. It doesn’t always work, and that’s the second half of this lecture.

It doesn’t always work, and when it doesn’t work, the neuroscience is really interesting on what shuts down morality. Smith was doing this by intuition and casual observation of people. But now we can run experiments to ask what inhibits this response, what promotes this response.

But I think he was mostly right. So we can’t help but feel empathy when we see the dog, the homeless person, the child with cancer, and that motivates us to do things that improve our social standing, that make us better human beings, that motivate us to serve others which is just amazing to me. And now we know why.

I want to give you a cautionary note on how not to improve society from a moral perspective. When we first published the research for the oxytocin inhaler, the media frenzy was enormous and overwhelming and mostly wrong. We used synthetic oxytocin, a drug, to show the direct causal relationship between oxytocin and positive social behaviors. We spent most of our time in the intervening six or seven years working on the large variety of situations that causes your brain to make its own oxytocin, and how that affects your behavior. Synthetic oxytocin administration is not the way to improve society.

That’s what I really want to talk about. That’s where the rubber hits the road. Everyone isn’t nice all the time. Why is that? That’s what we started investigating. It turns out that there’s a larger brain circuit that oxytocin activates which I call the HOME circuit, Human Oxytocin-Mediated Empathy circuit, and this circuit utilizes oxytocin and two other neuro-chemicals.

I’ll spend thirty seconds on this because it’s important. One is called dopamine, which is this reinforcement-learning chemical. So when we do something that’s nice, say, I hold the door for Ken and he says “thank you,” our brain makes a little oxytocin and it releases this little reinforcement chemical that says, “Oh, that’s nice. Apparently he must like it when you do that, you should keep doing that.”

We learn from an early age that these are the important behaviors that help sustain us in the community of humans. Second, oxytocin facilitates the release of serotonin, a neuro-chemical you all have heard about. When you have more serotonin, you have an improvement in mood and reduction in anxiety.

So social interactions change body states. So it actually feels good to do good for others.

Given that, the question is what inhibits activity in the circuit, and what promotes activity?

The first is something that you all have experienced, which is high levels of stress. When you’re super-stressed out, you are not your best self, right? You’re grumpy, you’re cranky, you’re not nice to people.

Then what do you have to do the next day? You’ve got to go to your spouse, to your work colleagues or whatever, you say, “I was such a jerk yesterday, I’m sorry.” “I was having a bad day, I got in a car accident and my dog died.” Whatever it is, we understand that. We can have a bad day, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, you’re just having a bad day.

So high levels of stress inhibit the release of oxytocin, and we become less focused on others and more on ourselves. We’re in survival mode. It turns out that moderate levels of stress increase oxytocin release. So for all the single folks out there, for your first date, I recommend riding a roller coaster, tandem skydiving, or bungee jumping. You have this big arousal response and you really want to now be with this person. Or just flying out of the Aspen Airport, I think that will do it, too.

So high stress is one inhibitor. The second inhibitor for oxytocin is the most important chemical for half the people in this audience, which is testosterone. When we administer testosterone to men and compared their behavior to themselves on placebo, men on testosterone are more selfish and more entitled.

For those of you with teenage boys at home, this is not news to you. Why is that testosterone focuses our brain on ourselves? It’s like your brain whispering to you, you have the best genes on the planet, you’re a little god, everyone should bow down in front of you. Now, this is not only valuable for people with teenage boys at home — it turns out that if you win a chess match, your testosterone goes up.

If you do anything challenging, your testosterone goes up. Testosterone goes up both in men and women. It turns out that in men it’s about ten times higher than in women, so the effect is more egregious. But for both sexes, testosterone increases make interactions all about you.

You are the center of attention. By the way, what happens when you speak in public? Your testosterone goes up. So I’m sorry, I’ll try to be more empathic later. So we know a lot about how this system works. We also know that for every study we’ve done in twelve years, on average women release more oxytocin than men. Again, not surprising. Women are nicer than men, we know that. Except when they’re not. Now you know why.

So it turns out that estrogen primes the brain to be more sensitive to oxytocin. And it turns out that progesterone inhibits this response. So it puts on a little brake.

Women are nicer than men but also more complicated.

We also looked at developmental factors that affect oxytocin. Animals that are abused or neglected, not cared for by the mother, have fewer oxytocin receptors, particularly in the front of the brain, which is part of the feel-good circuit.

We studied women who have terrible life histories, who as children were repeatedly sexually abused. So really long-term sexual abuse. We find about half of them don’t have a functional oxytocin system. And they’re socially withdrawn, they are clinically depressed, they have a lot of difficult issues.

On the other hand, the other half was resilient against that abuse, and it didn’t depend on the length of abuse, the extent of the abuse. So the oxytocin system seems fairly robust to moderate amounts of abuse, although all abuse is bad for sure. This system is mostly protected, but enough abuse shuts this system down. By the way, we talked about methamphetamine earlier. Stimulants, like methamphetamine and cocaine, also damage oxytocin receptors. This may be one reason stimulant addicts become socially withdrawn.

I said earlier that 95 percent of people we have tested in a variety of situations release oxytocin in the appropriate way and reciprocate, but 5 percent don’t. Who are the 5 percent? About half of those are people who are just having a really bad day. They are stressed out, but otherwise they are okay people.

The other half have all the attributes of psychopaths.

Last summer my lab and I spent two weeks in the cornfields of Wisconsin at a treatment center for criminal psychopaths. And we took blood from a 161 of these wonderful human beings, all men, and we found that on average when they watched that cancer kid video that makes lawyers cry, nothing. They don’t produce oxytocin. One hallmark of psychopathology is a lack of empathy. It’s not that these individuals are necessarily planning to hurt others. They just don’t care. They see individuals as a tools to an end. They’re going to use you for sex or for drugs or for money. You’re just a hurdle they have to jump over. They just don’t have the same feeling that we do. So they’re dangerous. I recommend you avoid them. Not good people to be around. It’s 2 percent of the free roaming population; it’s around 40 percent of prison population.

But 2 percent isn’t bad, right? Three percent of people are having bad days, and 95 percent are releasing oxytocin and behaving quite nicely. Most of the time, for most people, the system works pretty well. But how do we really know it works well? I’m going to show you some experiments we’ve done around the world in different populations, not just in North America or Europe, and also what I think one of the interesting legal implications, a defense against criminal responsibility.

Let me tell you about a case of a gentleman named Hans Reiser. Reiser was a rising star in the Internet world in Silicon Valley. He started a couple of companies. One of those hit big. He’s married. They have a little child together, a little girl. And at some point, his wife decided she is going to divorce Reiser. And then what happens?

She goes missing. You wonder how that happened, right? It’s always the spouse. You guys know that, you’ve seen all the crime shows, you’ve seen the data, particularly when a woman dies. About 90 percent of the time it’s the spouse. So Reiser is arrested, but they have not found the body. He goes to trial and by the last day of the trial, it’s clear that he’s going to get convicted, and he’s up for the death penalty. So he agrees to plead guilty to avoid the death penalty. He’ll get life in prison if he shows them where the body is.

They go to the Berkeley hills, and he shows them where he dumped her body. He’s in jail for life in San Quentin. After a year at San Quentin, he writes a four-page handwritten appeal in pencil to the governor of California requesting a new trial, citing my research, claiming that his lawyer had what I’ve called oxytocin deficit disorder, ODD. He’s saying his lawyer was a psychopath. Think of the irony of this. Reiser is clearly a psychopath and he’s claiming his lawyer couldn’t represent him fully because his lawyer wasn’t empathic enough.

So that appeal was turned down. I didn’t get to be on the stand as an expert witness (yet). But this is coming, and I think that’s a conversation we need to have as a society.

If my genes made me do it, if my lack of oxytocin made me do it, am I fully responsible for that act? I don’t know.

I’m going to conclude with what you can do with this information. As I started writing my book The Moral Molecule, I spent a bunch of time thinking about why I spent ten years of my life trying to understand morality.

It started out with work I had done on cross-country levels of trust which are predictive of countries’ levels of prosperity. High-trust countries have more social interactions. More social interactions lead to more economic transactions that create wealth that sustains prosperity. The highest trust countries in the world, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, are very homogenous and have good governments. There is almost no social strife. Everything works well in these societies. So trust is a very good measure of a well-functioning society. That’s the dishonest answer about why I studied oxytocin.

Once I understood trust at the country level, then I wanted to understand it at the individual level. But I started writing the book, and I realized that I had another motivation for this, and it was driven by this woman, Sister Mary Maris Stella, also known as…my mother.

My mother was a former Catholic nun. And when I was a child, mom was the ultimate moral authority in our house because she was trained and we were not. You know, the white glove test: dust in your room, you could be going to hell. So mom was a little experimenter with her family, and God bless her, she just passed away about a year ago. But as I got older, I thought, why does mom know best, or why is promoting a top-down morality? Why do some words in a book apply to me?

Why isn’t there a ground-up morality? Why don’t we know what morality is? So I rejected her views, and because of that, in our experiments, we asked the most simple questions about people’s religious beliefs, but basically I didn’t want to touch this issues, it’s the third rail of science. We just asked things like “Do you believe in God?,” “Do you pray?,” “Do you go to church?” None of that really mattered for the experiments, it didn’t affect oxytocin, and it didn’t affect people’s behavior. We just ignored it.

And as I was writing the book, I thought to myself, you should actually address this issue. So we got permission to actually go into churches and take blood before and after religious services, everything from Buddhist to Quakers to Protestants. And we went to different rituals that have the aspects of religious services, but aren’t religious at all.

We had soldiers march around our lab for fifteen minutes and took their blood. We went to folk dances and took blood before and after people danced. And we found in all these situations that a majority of people would release oxytocin, and when they did that, they felt closer to the communities they were in. We did not find that the release of oxytocin changed their sense of connection to God or some ultimate reality.

We used lots of different words to get at this issue. So whatever that feeling comes from, it doesn’t seem to be an oxytocin effect; it’s driven by something else. But I still think that these rituals, just like weddings, are important because they connect us to communities.

So this story I’ve told to you sounds like a kind of human universal, and this work has been replicated now by lots and lots of labs. And we can talk about all the details of the studies if you want, but one question that also nagged me was, is it really universal? Because honestly we did these studies first on college students in the U.S. and in Europe. Then we did free roaming humans. We found in all the same response.

But what about as far away from the developed world as we can get? So to address that question, I flew for thirty hours to the highlands of Papua New Guinea, which is a rainforest. There are 700 distinct languages in Papua New Guinea. It’s the Stone Age there. No running water, no electricity, no bathrooms. I was embedded in a village for a week and took blood before and after an ancient war dance was done by indigenous tribe members. It was really an amazing and life-changing experience. This tribe, it’s about 1,000 people. They live in huts. They live way in the highlands, too far from any markets to grow cash crops. They trade pigs for brides.

It’s really an amazing place in many ways. None of these men had ever been to a doctor or dentist in their life, so they had never seen their blood drawn. So it was an interesting experience for them.

So we had them do the dance. We did a baseline blood draw, had them do their dance for twenty minutes, and then took their blood again. These people are pretty healthy. They’re vegetarian. They do do drugs because they’ve got a lot of spare time. So they smoke pot which, you know, not surprising for you guys in Colorado, and they also use an indigenous drug called betel nut which stains their gums red. It’s a euphoric, and so some of them are kind of spaced out.

Anyway, what we found is that just like in all the other rituals we studied, a majority of men who danced in this ritual released oxytocin, and when they released oxytocin, they felt more connected to the community, they said they were more willing to volunteer to help their community. For example, they are subsistence farmers. They just grow roots, tubers, broccoli, and collect nuts. The people who are addicted to betel nut don’t tend their plots.

What happens to the drug users? Do they starve? I mean, what happens to their plots? They said, “Ah, no, we just take care of it for them. There’s this real sense of community in which if you’re not able to feed yourself, we’ll just take care of you, no big deal.”

So it looks like oxytocin is a universal factor in promoting morality. A moral molecule. The Papua New Guinea experiment was so compelling for me because if you remember this old saying from World War II, FUBAR, this is the FUBAR experiment. Everything went wrong. The liquid nitrogen evaporated on the flight. It was gone. The generators, the voltage was wrong, that didn’t work. We had all these things set up. We had an anthropologist who had to work with this tribe, who had arranged all this. We had gotten permission from the government. Their government, our government, lots of permissions. It took two years to do this. And you’re exhausted, and you get there, and you can do nothing.

So I’m in the village. People are sitting around the hillsides kind of watching the show, the weird white people with cameras coming in. And there’s nothing I could do. The crew was trying to work on getting more liquid nitrogen. In fact, I was so freaked out the camera crew told me, “We do this for a living, you need a break, just take a break.” So I sit down on the grass. People start coming over, looking at me, and in Papua New Guinea, they’re very touchy, they like to touch your hands. And I’m thinking, oh my God, I have to eat with these hands, like, we’ve brought all our own food. Where’s the Purell? Oh my gosh, the body odor is powerful.

And then the little children came up to me, and they started looking at me and I started making faces at them. I don’t speak in this language at all of course. I started making faces, I started playing with them. All of a sudden, we were laughing, we were having fun, and I just relaxed and enjoyed this wonderful opportunity to be in people’s homes.

Amazing people. And I felt so close to my village. So when I got ready to leave with our blood samples, with more liquid nitrogen coming in from Tokyo, we have to get down the mountain and get these things back to LA. And the chief who’s got a fifth grade education says, “Stop, you need to sit down, we have gifts for you.” So I sat down. And the film crew sat down.

These people have nothing. They have no money at all and they made me this beautiful hand-spade, and the chief had someone translate into English a little note that said “In our village, all leaders have hand-spades to till their fields to feed their people, and we thought you needed a hand-spade.” Isn’t this amazing? That’s amazing.

So how stupid are we if we can’t connect to the people around us where we speak the same language, we’re in the same culture, and yet we go around the world and we’re connecting to people who are in some sense totally different than us and another sense, completely the same as us. They have the same things, they love their kids, they want to have a good life. They want to be healthy, they want to enjoy themselves.

We have this sense of morality or appropriate social behaviors, and one of those is trust. As I said earlier, we showed that trust is a big engine for prosperity at the level of countries, and when prosperity is higher, if that wealth is shared equally enough, it means we’re reducing poverty, which reduces the stress people have, which gives them the luxury of releasing more oxytocin, increasing morality.

If prediction by the neuroscience were true, we should see evidence for it.

When we look at cross-country data, we find measures tolerance for people who are different than ourselves increases with income. We find that happiness levels increase with income.

And we recently looked at this in individuals — those who release more oxytocin are more satisfied with their lives. Why? Because they have high quality relationships of all types — romantic, with friends, with family, and even with strangers.

I want to tell you what happened to Lisa, the prisoner. Lisa was either going to serve a three-year jail term for her sentence or do a — a three-year jail term usually is a year-and-a-half for good behavior. So it’s a year-and-a-half in jail or a year-and-a-half in lockdown rehab. And through a series of interviews she was eligible to do a year of lockdown rehab. She learned about drug use. She learned how to stay away from the cues that motivate drug use.

Her goal was to get out of San Diego, where she had been sucked into this drug lifestyle, and move to the state where her children lived. And she indeed did that. The last I heard from her, she had rented an apartment in the same city in which her children lived with her aunt and uncle. And she was beginning to rebuild her relationship with her children. She wasn’t able to care for them yet, but at least she started to rebuild that relationship. And the last note she sent me, she said she had not contacted her mother.

So what’s the take-home? Oxytocin is sometimes called the love molecule. It makes us care about our offspring, our romantic partners. My lab showed that it also makes us care about complete strangers. And we looked at lots of ways we could cause oxytocin release, and one of those was touch. In rodents, if you stroke the belly, you can cause the release of oxytocin. I thought, oh, that’s a good experiment. You’ll come in, I’ll rub your belly and then… That’s kind of weird, right? So I thought, maybe I can do an experiment where you come in and have all the participants hug each other for like ten minutes.

So what’s wrong with that experiment? First of all, I get sued because someone gets their butt grabbed, and that’s not good, and also it’s just creepy, right? So instead we thought, who gets to touch you who you don’t know? Your doctor. Your hairstylist. Your massage therapist.

So we did this study at UCLA, and this was the easiest recruiting of a study we’d ever done. You came in, you get a blood draw, you get ten minutes professional massage therapy, another blood draw, then do a “share the money” task. We found, indeed, that touch released oxytocin and made people much more generous towards strangers. So I thought, how do I apply this to my own life?

I decided some years ago to refuse to shake hands with people and begin to hug everybody. So the students in my lab like to tease me, and they starting saying you’re Dr. Love now, you’re hugging people. Whatever. Anyway I had a reporter come down a couple of years ago from Fast Companymagazine. He wanted to interview me, be in some experiments. It’s always kind of weird when reporters come out because I don’t really know what they want from me and why they’re there and — anyway, he’s getting ready to go, so I said, “Before you go I’m going to give you a hug because I’m the oxytocin guy and I’m all about connection.”

So he titles his article “Introducing Dr. Love.” So I’m outed now as Dr. Love. At first I was kind of unhappy, I’m a serious scientist, I do this work every day. It’s hard, you know, we spend a lot of money on experiments. We work hard to do this work right.

But then when I thought about it, I thought, what a great thing he gave me. I get to go places and talk about love.

Love is a biological reality. Your brain is designed for love. We need love. It’s super important to us. We’ve shown that touch not only increases oxytocin, it reduces stress hormones and improves the immune system. So we need those social relationships. So I encourage you to embrace the “L” word, tell the people around you that you love them.

Even at work, I encourage people to say “love.” It just means I’m interested in you as a human being. I care about what happens to you. And generally people will reciprocate and care about what happens to you as well.

That’s how oxytocin works. I can’t force you to love me, I can only give you love. In the same way, I can’t make my brain make its own oxytocin, but I can give you the gift of oxytocin by, for example, giving you a hug, and you will generally reciprocate. You might even try to use the “L” word.

This article was originally published by The Aspen Institute on Medium

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