He was asked, "Who would want to buy these?"
His reply: "Idiots."
Of course, seemingly very smart people did invest in those derivatives, ignoring signals that they were not worth the risk, and emphasing whatever might support their decision. When this tendency to ignore evidence to the contrary spreads into a shared self-deception, it becomes groupthink. The unstated need to protect a treasured opinion (by discounting crucial disconfirming data) drives shared blind spots that lead to bad decisions.
President George W Bush's inner circle and their decision to invade Iraq based on imaginary "weapons of mass destruction" offers a classic example. So do the circles of financial players who fostered the mortgage derivatives meltdown. Both instances of catastrophic groupthink entailed insulated groups of decision-makers who failed to ask the right questions or ignored disconfirming data in a self-affirming downward spiral.
Cognition is distributed among members of a group or network: some people are specialists in one area, while others have complementary strengths of expertise. When information flows most freely among the group and into it, the best decisions will be made. But groupthink begins with the unstated assumption "We know everything we need to."
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Seeing ourselves as others see us
A firm that manages investments for very wealthy people gave Daniel Kahneman a treasure trove: eight years of investment results for twenty-five of its financial advisers. Analyzing the data, Kahneman found that there were no relationships between any given adviser's results from year to year - in other words, none of the advisers was consistently any better than the others at managing the clients' money. The results were no better than chance.
Yet everyone behaved as though there were a special skill involved - and the top performers each year got big bonuses. His results in hand, Kahneman had dinner with the top brass at the firm and informed them that they were "rewarding luck as if it were skill."
That should have been shocking news. But the executives calmly went on with their dinner and, Kahneman says, "I have no doubt that the implications were quickly swept under the rug and that life in the firm went on just as before."
The illusion of skill, deeply embedded in the culture of that industry, was under attack. But "facts that challenge such basic assumptions - and thereby threaten people's livelihood and self-esteem - are simply not absorbed," he adds.
Back in the 1960s, as the civil rights movement was boiling in the South, I joined a picket line at a local grocery store in my California hometown that did not then hire African-Americans. But it was not until years later, when I heard about the work of John Ogbu, a Nigerian anthropologist then at the University of California, Berkeley - who came to my nearby town to study what he called its "caste system "- that I realized there was one, a kind of de facto segregation. My high school was all-white, with a sprinkling of Asians and Hispanics; another high school was mostly black, with some Hispanics; the third was a mix. I had just never thought about it.
When it came to the grocery store, I could readily see their part in discrimination - but I was blind to the larger pattern I was enmeshed within, the overall social ladder inherent in where people lived, and so where they went to school (in those days). Inequity in a society fades into the background, something we habituate to rather than orient toward. It takes effort to shift it back into our collective focus.
Such self-deception seems a universal twist of attention. For instance, when drivers rated their abilities behind the wheel, about three-quarters thought they were better than average. Strangely, those who had been in an auto accident were more likely to rate themselves as better drivers than did those whose driving record was accident-free.
Even stranger: In general, most people rate themselves as being less likely than others to overrate their abilities. These inflated self-ratings reflect the "better-than-average" effect, which has been found for just about any positive trait, from competence and creativity to friendliness and honesty.
I read Kahneman's account in his fascinating book Thinking Fast and Slow while on a Boston-to-London flight. As the plane landed I chatted with the fellow across the aisle, who had been eyeing the cover. He told me he planned to read the book - and happened to mention that he invested the assets of wealthy individuals.
As our plane taxied down the long runway and found its way to our gate at Heathrow, I summarized the main points for him, including this tale about the financial firm-adding that it seemed to imply his industry rewarded luck as though it were skill.
"I guess," he replied with a shrug, "I don't have to read the book now."
When Kahneman had reported his results to the money managers themselves, they responded with a similar indifference. As he says of such disconcerting data, "The mind does not digest them."
It takes meta-cognition - in this case, awareness of our lack of awareness - to bring to light what the group has buried in a grave of indifference or suppression. Clarity begins with realizing what we do not notice - and don't notice that we don't notice.
Smart risks are based on wide and voracious data-gathering checked against a gut sense; dumb decisions are built from too narrow a base of inputs. Candid feedback from those you trust and respect creates a source of self-awareness, one that can help guard against skewed information inputs or questionable assumptions. Another antidote to groupthink: expand your circle of connection beyond your comfort zone and inoculate against in-group isolation by building an ample circle of no-BS confidants who keep you honest.
A smart diversification goes beyond gender and ethnic group balance to include a wide range of ages, clients, or customers, and any others who might offer a fresh perspective.
"Early on in our operation, our servers failed," an executive at a cloud computing company says. "Our competitors were monitoring us, and soon we got a flood of calls from reporters asking what was going on. We didn't answer the calls, because we didn't know what to say.
"Then one employee, a former journalist, came up with a creative solution: a website called 'Trust Cloud' where we were completely open about what was happening with our server - what the problem was, how we were trying to fix it, everything."
That was a foreign idea to most executives there; they had come from tech companies where heightened secrecy was routine. The unquestioned assumption that they should keep the problem to themselves was a potential seed of groupthink.
"But once we became transparent," the executive says, "the problem went away. Our customers were reassured they could know what was happening, and reporters stopped calling."
"Sunlight," as Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter once said, "is the best disinfectant."
FOCUS: THE HIDDEN DRIVER OF EXCELLENCE
AUTHOR: Daniel Goleman
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury India
Price: Rs 499