January 19, 2009 First Chapter ‘Born to Be Good’ By dacher keltner

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January 19, 2009

First Chapter

Born to Be Good’


1 Jen Science

Antony van Leeuwenhoek changed how we look at the natural world. Born in Delft, the Netherlands, in 1632, he came from a family of brewers and basket-makers. Van Leeuwenhoek was peacefully settled into his life as a fabric maker, minor city official, and wine assayer until he started grinding up lenses to build simple microscopes to get a better look at the drapes in his shop. His curiosity led him to place the algae of nearby lakes under his three- to four-inch single-lens microscopes, as well as the cells of fish, his sperm, and the plaque of two old men who had never cleaned their teeth. He was the first to study bacteria, blood cells, and spermatozoa. He opened humanity’s eyes to the microbiological world, changing our understanding of who we are.

This book offers a Darwinian lens onto a new science of positive emotion. We’ll call this new science jen science, in honor of the Confucian concept of jen. Jen is the central idea in the teachings of Confucius, and refers to a complex mixture of kindness, humanity, and respect that transpires between people. Alienated by the violence, the materialism, and the hierarchical religion of his sixth- and fifth- century B.C. China, Confucius taught a new way of finding the meaningful life through the cultivation of jen. A person of jen, Confucius observes, “wishing to establish his own character, also establishes the character of others.” A person of jen “brings the good things of others to completion and does not bring the bad things of others to completion.” Jen is felt in that deeply satisfying moment when you bring out the goodness in others.

Jen science is based on its own microscopic observations of things not closely examined before. Most centrally, it is founded on the study of emotions such as compassion, gratitude, awe, embarrassment, and amusement, emotions that transpire between people, bringing the good in each other to completion. Jen science has examined new human languages under its microscope—movements of muscles in the face that signal devotion, patterns of touch that signal appreciation, playful tones of the voice that transform conflicts. It brings into focus new substances that we are made of, neurotransmitters as well as regions of our nervous system that promote trust, caring, devotion, forgiveness, and play. It reveals a new way of thinking about the evolution of human goodness, which requires revision of longstanding assumptions that we are solely wired to maximize desire, to compete, and to be vigilant to what is bad.

Seeing the world through this Darwinian lens of jen science could very well shift your jen ratio. The jen ratio is a lens onto the balance of good and bad in your life. In the denominator of the jen ratio place recent actions in which someone has brought the bad in others to completion—the aggressive driver who flips you off as he roars past, the disdainful diner in a pricey restaurant who sneers at less well-heeled passersby. Above this, in the numerator of the ratio, tally up the actions that bring the good in others to completion—a kind hand on your back in a crowded subway car, the young child who compliments the elderly woman on her bathing suit as she nervously dips her toe in a swimming pool, the woman who laughs as a stranger accidentally steps on her foot. As the value of your jen ratio rises, so too does the humanity of your world.

Let’s give the jen ratio a little life. An after-school moment at my daughters’ playground yields the following. In the numerator: two boys laugh, giving each other noogies on the head, girls do handstands and cartwheels, giggling at their butt-thumping mistakes, in the soft expanse of a grassy field kids dog pile on a young boy deliriously clasping the football to his chest. In the denominator: a boy teases a smaller boy about his shoes; two girls whisper about another girl who tries to enter into their game of unicorn. This minute of playground life yields a jen ratio of 3/2, or 1.5. A pretty good scene. In an interminable, eight-minute line to buy stamps I see 24 varieties of exasperation, from sighs to glares to threatening groans, and one guy laughs three times. 3/24 = .125.

One can apply the jen ratio to any realm: our interior life, more satisfying and more trying periods of a marriage, the tenor of a family reunion, the goodwill of a neighborhood, the rhetoric of presidents, the spirit of historical eras. Think of the jen ratio as a lens through which you might take stock of your attempt at living a meaningful life.

The Jen Ratio and the Health of Nations

Simple measures can yield power diagnoses. Apgar scores, blood pressure indexes, emotional intelligence quotients all take minutes to derive but reveal the course a life can take. What measure would you propose to diagnose the social well-being of our times? Murder rates? The GDP? The distribution of wealth to those on the top compared to those at the bottom? The percentage of citizens who believe in the resurrection? The speed with which people laugh at Homer Simpson? If I were given one metric to take the temperature of the social well-being of the individual, the marriage, a school, community, or culture, the jen ratio would be my choice.

For the individual, new studies are finding that a high jen ratio, a devotion to bringing the good in others to completion, is the path to the meaningful life. Engaging in five acts of kindness a week—donating blood, buying a friend a sundae, giving money to someone in need—elevates personal well-being in lasting ways. Spending twenty dollars on someone else (or giving it to charity) leads to greater boosts in happiness than spending that money on oneself (even though most people think that spending money on themselves would be the surer route to happiness). When pitted against one another in competitive economic games, cooperators and those who forgive selfish partners fare better than competitors in terms of economic outcome. New neuroscience suggests we are wired for jen: When we give to others, or act cooperatively, reward centers of the brain (the nucleus accumbens, a region dense with dopamine receptors) hums with activity. Giving may enhance self-interest more than receiving.

What works for individuals works in marriage: Bringing the good of a romantic partner to completion (and not the bad) yields many positive returns. One of the most toxic developments in marriage is the emergence of a low jen ratio. In over twenty studies of how romantic partners explain one another’s actions, the couples heading toward divorce routinely attribute the good things in their intimate life to the selfish motivations of their partner (“he brought me flowers just to butter me up for his golf weekend”). Regrettably, they just as readily pin the responsibility of their hassles, struggles, and crises on their partners (“if she’d clean the back seats of our car every now and then we wouldn’t have things growing under there”). Happier couples are guided by a high jen ratio: They generously give credit to their partner and see hidden virtues accompanying their partner’s foibles and faults.

And what’s true of individuals and marriages is true of nations: Nations whose citizens bring the good in others to completion thrive. High jen ratios are proving to be a hallmark of healthy societies. In 1996, neuroscientist Paul Zak and colleagues asked random samples of participants in various countries to answer the following question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you cannot be too careful in dealing with people?” (See figure below for levels of trust across cultures.) After statistically controlling for appropriate variables, such as economic development, Zak and colleagues found that for every 15 percent increase in the trust of a nation’s citizens, their economic fortunes rise by $430. Trust facilitates economic exchange with fewer transaction costs, including fewer failed negotiations, adversarial settlements, and needless lawsuits. With increased trust among a citizenry, discrimination and economic inequality fall. High jen ratios promote a society’s economic and ethical progress.

One cannot help but be struck by the cultural variation in the levels of trust presented in the figure below. As a generalization, Zak found that Scandinavian and East Asian cultures are more trusting than South American and Eastern European cultures. Poorer nations (India) are often more trusting than wealthier nations (the United States).

Jen yen

In the recent explosion of studies on social well-being, signs of a loss of jen in the United States are incontrovertible. The percentage of Americans who trust their fellow citizens has dropped 15 percentage points in the past fifteen years. Many indicators of our culture’s poor health—increasing feelings of anomie, greater loneliness, the trend toward less happy marriages—are on the rise. U.S. adults now have one-third fewer close friends in their circle of intimates than twenty years ago. Young babies have more physical contact with their Hummer-like baby strollers than from the touch of their parents’ hands. In a recent UNICEF study of twenty-one industrialized nations, U.S. children ranked twentieth in terms of overall well-being (see figure below).

The measure of childhood well-being was based on the sum of six measures: material well-being, health and safety, education, peer and family relationships, behaviors and risks, and children’s own subjective well-being. Lower scores indicate higher overall rankings reflective of greater childhood well-being in the country.

The decline in our social well-being has been blamed on the abandonment of the classics of Western civilization in higher education, moral relativism, and the loss of religious faith. Others have floated different causes of the wearing down of the social fabric: the disappearance of modesty, precocious sexuality, the proliferation of mediated communication, and fast food.

I see these disheartening social trends as the culmination of a broader ideology about human nature, one with a jen ratio trending toward 0. This ideology has influential advocates from Sigmund Freud to evolutionary theorists. The strongest proponents of this view are found in the halls of economics departments. Their characterization of human nature, known widely as rational choice theory, extends to evolutionary thought, psychological science, and the field of emotion—my own disciplines. It has blinded us to the science and practice of jen.

At the center of this theory is Homo economicus, the latest stage of human evolution, a hominid first portrayed by philosophers, Adam Smith the most well-known, who were awestruck by the great expansion of wealth, technology, and progress during the Industrial Revolution. First and foremost, Homo economicus is selfish. Every action of Homo economicus is designed to maximize self-interest, in the form of experienced pleasure, advances in material wealth, or, in evolutionist thought, the propagation of genes.

When “pleasure centers” were first discovered in 1954 in a region of the limbic brain known as the septum, rats, neither hungry nor thirsty, would press bars for hours on end just to have that region stimulated. Economists assume that you and I have much in common with those rats, that we are wired for the perpetual pursuit of personal gratification. And now a new field, neuroeconomics, is beginning to back this up: Of the sixty miles of neural wiring of the human brain, the regions involved in representing the basic rewards, sweet tastes, pleasant scents, also light up like Christmas lights in fMRI scans at the prospect of winning money.

If humans are wired to maximize the fulfillment of desire, a second claim readily follows: Competition is a natural and normative state of affairs. Competition subjects our unbounded self-interest to the rational order of the marketplace in which supply and demand constrain the fulfillment of our desires. Cooperation and kindness are, by implication, cultural conventions or deceptive acts masking deeper self-interest. As a case in point, consider the debate about generous acts toward strangers. These acts cost you in terms of time, energy, and missed opportunities and, most irrationally, benefit genetically unrelated individuals. Such acts fall outside the reach of stalwart evolutionary concepts of inclusive fitness (the generous act benefits those individuals who share our genes) and reciprocal altruism (the generous act is eventually reciprocated and thus enhances the individual’s welfare). The conclusion: These generous acts are evolutionary “misfires” or “strategic errors”; they are misapplications of more self-interested systems such as the love of kin or friends who reciprocate.

Evolving in societies of selfish, competitive gratification machines gave rise to a third design feature of Homo economicus: a mind wired to prioritize the bad—the toxic food, hidden snake, cuckolding friend, backstabbing peer—over the good. That the bad is stronger than the good is evident in several findings. Our memory for bad things is more robust than for good things (it’s a wonder any of us ever go back to a high-school reunion). Economic losses loom larger than their equivalent gains: Losing twenty dollars stings more than finding twenty dollars pleases. Slides of negative stimuli (pictures of mutilated faces or a dead cat) trigger stronger activation in brain regions associated with evaluative judgments than slides of positive stimuli (a picture of a pizza slice a bowl of chocolate). Negative things, Paul Rozin observers, contaminate the positive more readily than vice versa. A cockroach walks near a plate of truffles and they’re ruined. Place a truffle near a pile of cockroaches and . . . they’re still disgusting.

These claims, that humans are wired to pursue self-interest, to compete, and to be vigilant to the bad rather than the good, are no doubt familiar to you. In fact, they lie at the heart of the intellectual traditions that have shaped Western thought. These core assumptions guide the thinking of founding figures in fields such as psychoanalysis, economics, political theory, and evolutionary theory:

The very emphasis of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” makes it certain that we are descended from an endlessly long chain of generations of murderers, whose love of murder was in their blood as it is perhaps also in ours. SIGMUND FREUD

Objectivist ethics, in essence, hold that man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself. AYN RAND

Of mankind we may say in general they are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain. MACHIAVELLI

The natural world is “grossly immoral.” . . . Natural selection “can honestly be described as a process for maximizing short-sighted selfishness.” GEORGE WILLIAMS

These deeply ingrained assumptions tilt the jen ratio of our culture toward extremely low values, and they led us astray in our pursuit of the meaningful life.

The Midlife Crisis of Homo economicus

Social life would be a strange affair if humans had no sense of self-interest, no competitive drive, no attunement to the bad in the world, if their jen ratios had no input into the denominator. Just ask the parents of children with Williams syndrome. These children often have elfin features and intellectual deficits (for example, language delays, distractibility, difficulties controlling attention). Yet they can possess a fascinating combination of savantlike talents: They may sparkle in conversation, be exquisitely sensitive to music and loud sounds, and be preternaturally at ease with others. Unsettling from the parents’ perspective is that children suffering from Williams syndrome often have little sense of individuality, few boundaries, and a pure and at times problematic interest in the welfare of others. They tend to catapult themselves into friendly relations with people they have just met—the pimply checkout guy, the traffic officer, the psychotic panhandler hustling a dollar reciting poetry about the end of the world.

Clearly we are wired to pursue self-interest, to compete, and to be vigilant to the bad. Those tendencies make evolutionary sense, they are built into our genes and nervous systems. They are part of human nature. But that is half the story. Several lines of thought suggest that Homo economicus, and its proponents, are experiencing a crisis in faith, that this model of human nature is only part of our story.

Economists themselves have asked whether maximizing self-interest is always the core motive of human action. This questioning found galvanizing expression in a 1988 book, Passions Within Reason, by Cornell economist Robert Frank. Frank offers a series of observations that reveal humans to be more than bar-pressing rats seeking that pleasure-center buzz. Here’s one: From the perspective of maximizing personal desire, why do we tip a waitress after grabbing breakfast in a diner in a town we will never set foot in again? There really is no personal gain to this costly act, no promise of reciprocity, no speeded-up service the next time we frequent the restaurant, no burnishing of our reputation in the eyes of the other diners who witness our largesse. Our economic lives, Frank observes, are punctuated by actions that harm our self-interest while enhancing the welfare of others: generosity toward co-workers, acts of charity to faraway children and the protection of other species, buying Girl Scout cookies at exorbitant prices. The health of long-term bonds, Frank continues, depends upon high jen emotions like compassion, gratitude, and love.

An outpouring of empirical findings has lent credence to Frank’s prescient claims. Consider one such set of results, generated by studies that use the ultimatum game. In the ultimatum game, an allocator is given a sum of money, say $10, and told to keep a certain amount and allocate the rest to a second participant, a responder, who can either accept or reject the offer. If rejection is the choice, neither player receives anything. The enlightened self-interested approach would be for the allocator to give the responder 1¢, or perhaps in a fit of generosity $1, and for the responder to accept. In the end, both individuals’ overall wealth is advanced, and Adam Smith smiles.

Across ten studies of people in 12 different cultures, however, economists Ernst Fehr and Klaus Schmidt found that 71 percent of the allocators offered the responder between 40 and 50 percent of the money. Most people showed a strong preference for near-equality. Remember these are strangers they’re making these offers to, not kith and kin. People around the world will sacrifice the enhancement of self-interest in the service of other principles: equality, a more favorable reputation, or even, God forbid, the advancement of others’ welfare.

So we don’t always act in the pure pursuit of self-interest. What about a more basic question: Does material gain make us happy? Certainly this is a pervasive notion. Seventy-four percent of today’s undergraduates cite economic gain as the primary motive for going to college (compared to 25 percent twenty years ago, above other motives, such as developing a philosophy of the meaningful life or contributing to the greater good). We are increasingly defining our needs in terms of gratifying materialistic desire. Look at the table below, adapted from Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety, which portrays recent shifts in the percentage of U.S. citizens who consider different products to be basic necessities.


Second car 20/59

Second TV 3/45

More than one telephone 2/78

Car air conditioning 11/65

Home air conditioning 22/70

Dishwasher 8/44

Does money make us happy? The answer for those who have very little is yes. Material gain allows individuals in the lowest economic strata to avoid the innumerable problems associated with economic deprivation, including depression, anxiety, compromised resistance to disease, and higher mortality rates.

For those in the middle classes and above, however, the association between money and happiness is weak or nonexistent. Researchers have now asked millions of people the simple question: “How satisfied are you with your life right now?” It is not personal wealth, the strength of the stock market, inflation, or fluctuations in interest rates that causes the ebb and flow in our personal well-being. This same literature reveals time and time again that what makes us happy is the quality of our romantic bonds, the health of our families, the time we spend with good friends, the connections we feel to communities. When our jen ratios are high in our close relations, so are we.

The Jen of Blushes, Laughs, Smiles, and Touch

When I began my study of emotion fifteen years ago, the bad is stronger than the good thesis found a comfortable home in the literature on emotion. Empirical studies were quick to find that there are more words in the English language that represent negative than positive emotions. Only one signal of positive emotion in the face, the smile, had been studied, compared to the five or six signals of negative emotion. Nothing was known about how positive emotions activate our autonomic nervous system, which controls basic bodily functions like digestion, blood flow, breathing, and sexual response. These empirical facts led many in the field to the view that positive emotions are in reality by-products of negative states. For example, my first response is fear toward someone I don’t know, and upon recognizing that such a person is familiar and safe, I experience warmth and love; affection is in actuality the cessation of fear. Scientists were quick to take the next step: The negative emotions are rooted deeper in human nature than positive emotions, and are a more active currency in our daily living. The jen ratio of the science of emotion hovered near 0.

As I have applied the Darwinian lens to the emotions the past fifteen years, another swath of human nature was revealed to me, positive emotions that bring the good in others to completion. I kept encountering fleeting two- or three-second emotions that belonged in the numerator of the jen ratio. As I painstakingly coded hundreds of hours of people talking about the death of their spouse, I witnessed laughs that acted like brief journeys to a more peaceful state. In the surge of affection between romantic partners, I saw brief head tilts, smiles, and open-handed gestures. I saw teasers, once playfully vicious, soothe their targets with quarter-second touches to the shoulders and fleeting eye-to-eye affirmation. I observed sexual interest sweep over the flirtatious young suitors’ faces in lip puckers and lip bites. After being startled, people recovered their poise briefly, but then collapsed, disheveled, into a state of embarrassment, looking askance, blushing, touching their faces, and smiling awkwardly. When I presented images of these abashed participants to others, these viewers would sigh vocalizations that provided clues to the origins of compassion.

The canonical studies of human emotion, studies of the universality of facial expression, of how emotion is registered in the nervous system, how emotion shapes judgment and decision making, had never looked into these states. The groundbreaking studies of emotion had only examined one state covered by the term “happiness.” But research is often misled by “ordinary” language, the language we speak rather than the language of scientific theory. Happiness is a diffuse term. It masks important distinctions between emotions such as gratitude, awe, contentment, pride, love, compassion and desire—the focus of this book—as well as expressive behaviors such as teasing, touch, and laughter. This narrow concentration on “happiness” has stunted our scientific understanding of the emotions that move people toward higher jen ratios. By solely asking “Am I happy?” we miss out on the many nuances of the meaningful life.

My hope is to shift what goes into the numerator of your jen ratio, to bring into sharper focus the millisecond manifestations of human goodness. I hope that you will see human behavior in a new light, the subtle cues of embarrassment, playful vocalizations, the visceral feelings of compassion, the sense of gratitude in another’s touch to your shoulder, that have been shaped by the seven million years of hominid evolution and that bring the good in others to completion. In our pursuit of happiness we have lost sight of these essential emotions. Our everyday conversations about happiness are filled with references to sensory pleasure—delicious Australian wines, comfortable hotel beds, body tone produced by our exercise regimens. What is missing is the language and practice of emotions like compassion, gratitude, amusement, and wonder. My hope is to tilt your jen ratio to what the poet Percy Shelley describes as the great secret of morals: “the identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.” The key to this quest resides in the study of emotions long ignored by affective science. It will require that we return to Darwin’s country home, Down House, in Kent, England, and that we travel with Paul Ekman to the highlands of New Guinea.

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