Rethinking bankers see, bankers do

Marketplace Staff Jun 3, 2010
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Rethinking bankers see, bankers do

Marketplace Staff Jun 3, 2010
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TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Kai Ryssdal: Finance ministers from the G-20 countries are meeting today in South Korea. They’ll talk about a whole bunch of things — first among them the ongoing unease in European financial markets. Part of what they’re worried about is a repeat of Wall Street circa 2008. When bankers started doing the same thing at the same time — not lending because everybody else wasn’t lending.

Commentator K.C. Cole says they couldn’t help themselves.


K.C. Cole: Monkey see, monkey do. It’s not a new observation. We’re all natural mimics, especially in close-knit groups. Take any bunch of journalists, senators, gangsters, truckers or Wall Street bankers, and you’ll find an astonishing array of similarities — in the way they dress, walk, think, spend money, even raise children.

It’s all rather amusing until it gets out of control. That is, when a couple of really bad actors influence a whole religion or industry until “bad actor” becomes the default position. And yes, I’m talking about religious extremists. But I’m also talking about Goldman Sachs and their whole entitled ilk. How did “Bankers Behaving Badly” get to be so “normal” that people barely notice?

Recently, science has thrown its two cents in. Neuroscientists have known for years that if one monkey reaches for a banana, and a second monkey watches, the same neurons fire in the “watching” monkey as in the monkey who grabbed the banana.

Okay, monkeys are monkeys. But this year, for the first time, researchers at UCLA made direct recordings of such mirror neurons at work in the human brain. Humans see, humans do.

There’s a definite upside to all this. We cry at weddings, because our mirror neurons get soppy right along with the bride’s. We scream in slasher movies, because neurons in our own brains mimic those in the mind of the victim.

Alas, this kind of unconscious mimicry requires absolutely no understanding of the actions or emotions involved, no thought to what we are doing or why. What’s worse, we like people who mimic us, so we keep them around, multiplying the effect.

What’s this got to do with Bankers Behaving Badly? For starters, bankers could dump that “me too, everybody does it” attitude, and think about what values they’re reflecting.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, save us from a big Dow fall.

Ryssdal: K.C. Cole’s most recent book is called “Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens.”

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