Lab | Log

Love Night at the Lab: On Love, Brain Chemistry, and Public Policy

If I told you I was going to write about love, you might stop reading right now to spare yourself the sap. And if I told you I was going to write about public policy, you might do the same to spare yourself the bore.

But if I told you I was going to write about what happens when love and public policy cross paths, you might be intrigued enough to continue.

Still reading?

Good. Because on Friday night, I found out. And what I learned was profound.

When Love Night at the Lab was advertised, it was billed as a radical collaboration between a neuroscientist, a psychologist, and an interactive telecommunications specialist to design a party that would bring out the love in even the most hardened New Yorker.

Yes, it was social engineering at its finest, born from Lab Team member Charles Montgomery’s obsession with the science of happiness.

The goal? To construct the ideal environment to prompt the trustful and bonding encounters that nudge us toward altruistic and convivial behavior.

This included, but was not limited to: heat sensitive t-shirts that changed color with every hug; hot cocoa that only came in twos, one for the receiver, and another to give to the unsuspecting last person in line; interactive bubble-bursting artwork that forced strangers to get uncomfortably close; and a forgiveness booth that prompted people to confess their fears and regrets, and allowed them to see those of others.

These were not randomly designed activities. Each was carefully crafted to prompt the empathetic impulses discovered by neuroscientist Paul Zak and psychologist Emanuele Castano.

More specifically, they were crafted to heighten our flow of the hormone known as oxytocin—the ancient chemical that our bodies release to make us feel good during sex and childbirth as well as acts of altruism, trust, and bonding. (To understand the full, fascinating science behind this chemical, see my interview with Zak—who prefers to be called Dr. Love.)

It was a beautiful sight.

I could go on at length about the splendor of watching this all unfold—the smiles and touching moments reflected in the eyes of five hundred strangers. Instead I’ll let you see some of it yourself in the video above (or read about it in Zak’s own recap of the event) while I focus on the single most striking aspect of the night, which I nearly overlooked in my own state of bleary euphoria.

While the party raged on, Lab hosts had guests partake in Urbanology, the interactive game played every day at the Lab that asks participants to make decisions on real-world policy dilemmas and then demonstrates how their decisions would impact the various systems of the city.

But at Love Night, something funny happened. Amidst all the hugging, the cocoa drinking, and the fear confessing, something in us clicked and our priorities changed.

As the night wore on, the votes the groups cast in their imaginary cities increasingly prioritized lifestyle, livability, and sustainability, while the importance of wealth dropped.

They were more likely to turn down money that would detract from others’ quality of life. They were willing to pay more for a more ecologically responsible city.

But the most profound contrast of all came when Lab facilitators asked the question: “Will you raise the minimum wage for people working through the night?”

Historically 90 percent of visitors at the Lab have voted no on this question. On Love Night, over 80 percent voted yes.

These results did not surprise Paul Zak, who has coined a new name for oxytocin: the moral molecule.

“I was surprised by the strength of the effect. But I wasn’t surprised by the overall effect. We’ve shown in controlled lab experiments that when we raise oxytocin, people are much more generous. Oxytocin is associated with the feeling of empathy, so it’s easier to understand how it would feel to have a lower wage when your oxytocin is higher. When we connect, we care more for other people,” he said.

In big cities like New York, Zak said, we often train ourselves not to feel empathy. The tragic homeless people on the streets, for example, and the numerous other negative stimuli might overwhelm us if we’re too empathetic.

“But I think what I learned from Love Night is that maybe New Yorkers went too far on the separation, and that sometimes it might be good to go back to a little more love and empathy,” Zak said.

But the real challenge that arose from Love Night is not the what, but the how.

How do we move forward from these anecdotal findings and actually build environments beyond the Lab that nudge us toward altruistic behavior?

It’s what Charles Montgomery later dubbed a “design challenge”: to build cities that offer both the opportunity for connection, and the choice of private retreat.

“The suburbanization of America and the privatization of social life has paralleled a retreat from public life and public values in the United States and other countries,” he said.

“What this suggests is that experiencing pro-social environments not only feels good but also unlocks feelings of generosity and empathy that lead us to a different kind of city. We came away from Love Night less fearful of strangers and more likely to give each other the benefit of the doubt when we bump into each other on a crowded sidewalk.”

So yes, the image of five hundred people debating urban policy while hugging strangers over steaming hot cocoa might sound like a bit of a stretch. It might sound flighty, a little hippy dippy. And in the moment, it felt almost as silly it sounds.

But it’s hard to argue with the possibility of a more empathetic city.

“I’m not suggesting that hugs are going to save the world. But there’s something profound to be learned from it,” said Charles.

“We weren’t drunk on oxytocin at Love Night. We were educated by it.”

I hope that over the final few days leading to the Lab’s close in New York, we will see ideas for more convivial city design begin to surface. What does it actually look like, and what can we do to create it?

Perhaps it could even start right where Love Night took place—in the space the Lab will leave once it departs for Berlin.

Can you suggest ways that First Park could be converted into an engine for genial encounters?