The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

Creating Love Night in New York City

Can New Yorkers love each other?

Can New Yorkers love each other? If you had some of BMW's resources, could you design a night that would catalyze New Yorkers to connect with strangers? This was the question I was asked in early 2011 by writer Charles Montgomery who is finishing a new book called "The Happy City." Charles is a guest curator at the BMW-Guggenheim Lab that is currently in New York City (and moves to Berlin soon).

So, what would you create to get strangers to interact with each other? (And, would anyone show up?). Charles put our goal out there by calling the event "Love Night". If I understood the moral molecule, the molecule of connection and love, I thought, I should be able to design an experience to get people's brains to produce oxytocin and then watch them connect with each other. Along with New School psychologist Emanuele Castano and writer and NYU technologist Kio Stark we designed events for people to do that we thought might cause oxytocin release. But, this would be way way out of my lab in an urban and a potentially chaotic setting. Would it work?

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Friday night, 7pm and 500 people show up. Gulp! Charles welcomes everyone and passes me the microphone. Since Fast Company magazine writer Adam Penenberg "outted" me as Dr. Love because I hug everyone, I've been suggesting that people hug eight times a day as a way to connect to others. I thought we'd try this in New York City.

The brilliant Sabine Seymour  director of the Fashionable Technology Lab at Parsons The New School for Design created thermochromic T- shirts for me and many others to wear. These shirts change color when they are warmed; yes they changed color when peopled hugged. I discussed the science of oxytocin and then asked a guy next to the stage to come up and I gave him a hug to model hugging a stranger and show how the shirt changed color. Then I appointed everyone with the special T-shirts to be hug ambassadors. I jumped off stage started saying hi and hugging people.

People started circulating and hugging each other. And talking. And spending time with strangers. Those attending did the other activities the Lab had set up, but the hugging was the most active and fun according to the people I spoke to.

Something magical happened. Something transformative. People were smiling and laughing. After about 100 hugs in three hours I felt "high" from the constant oxytocin rush. Many of those in the event felt similarly transformed. We collected data and found those attending Love Night said they felt closer to those in attendance, to New Yorkers in general, and reporting feeling more compassionate and happier than when they walked into the Lab.

Can it really be that easy? Here's a suggestion you can do outside of an event that was designed to allow people to hug strangers: Introduce yourself to one person you don't know a week. Some of those introductions will stick and will evolve into meeting for coffee and then you'll be plugged in to that person's social network. This will produce more chances to release oxytocin and create a richer social environment and a happier you.

When Love Night was over and we were saying our goodbyes, I walked up to Charles to thank him for encouraging me to design this experience. Charles opened his arms wide and said "I love you" and hugged me. RIght in the middle of New York City.

 

 

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.  His book The Moral Molecule will be published in 2012.

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