In The Altruistic Brain: How We Are Naturally Good, I describe the neuronal mechanisms that predispose humans to behave empathetically towards each other, irrespective of religious or cultural determinants. The brain processes that underlie this mechanism are well understood theoretically, and together constitute a default “wiring” that prompts us – without thinking – to offer help, display kindness, and even risk our well-being to mitigate another’s distress. My position is that evolution favoured altruism because it was crucial to our survival as a group.

Of course, for a neuroscientist it is enough to explain this brain circuitry, leaving others to consider how – and whether – it applies in the complex world we now inhabit, thousands of years since homo sapiens’ brain developed. But in The Altruistic Brain I bridge the gap between natural and social sciences, and demonstrate how a natural tilt towards altruism can be critical in such hard-nosed pursuits as business (and its newest offshoot, e-commerce).

Take for example the element of trust. As Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow has observed, “Virtually every commercial transaction has within itself an element of trust.” On a less lofty plane, the Better Business Bureau declares: “Start with Trust.” Yet while both these formulae pivot on trust, their semantics are somewhat wobbly, and beg the obvious question – how do arm’s length actors establish trust, since they are strangers forced by their situation to rely on each other’s promises? One way is  to jump-start the process, and accept that most people, indeed the vast majority, will act in ways that are worthy of trust. That is, they will naturally be motivated to appreciate each other’s position, and will perform accordingly. They will be honest out of empathy.   

In fact, as I wrote the book we interviewed Colin Rule, who helped devise eBay’s dispute resolution procedure. Rule was emphatic that eBay’s founder, Peter Omidyar, started from the premise that users of the service would trust one another since “people are basically good”. Incredibly, deep in the heart of capitalism, where self-interest is the norm, Omidyar starts a whole business based on one person’s acting out of concern for another. eBay now has millions of users, and Rule reports that 99 per cent of the transactions proceed without a hitch.

In ‘Reflections on an Initial Trust-Building Model’, D. Harrison McKnight and Norman Chervany studied the trust levels prevalent in e-commerce, and came to the startling conclusion that they are actually improved by distance and the lack of prior relationship. That is, the parties’ natural trust has no major obstacles and therefore simply governs. The parties assume each other’s good will.

Altruism, empathy and mutual concern allow modern business to flourish, even though ancient brain mechanisms are the motive force.

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