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Challenging the Crowd in Whispers, Not Shouts

An old article in the New York Times on group think and the role it played in the housing crisis.

Perhaps we should remember this the next time we “seek consensus” on an issue at a meeting. Consensus and right are not the same.

In his classic 1972 book, Groupthink, Irving L. Janis, the Yale psychologist, explained how panels of experts could make colossal mistakes. People on these panels, he said, are forever worrying about their personal relevance and effectiveness, and feel that if they deviate too far from the consensus, they will not be given a serious role. They self-censor personal doubts about the emerging group consensus if they cannot express these doubts in a formal way that conforms with apparent assumptions held by the group.

Members of the Fed staff were issuing some warnings. But Mr. Greenspan was right: the warnings were not predictions. They tended to be technical in nature, did not offer a scenario of crashing home prices and economic confidence, and tended to come late in the housing boom.


A search of the Federal Reserve Board’s working paper series reveals a few papers that touch on the bubble. For example, a 2004 paper by Joshua Gallin, a Fed economist, concluded: “Indeed, one might be tempted to cite the currently low level of the rent-price ratio as a sign that we are in a house-price ‘bubble.’” But the paper did not endorse this view, saying that “several important caveats argue against such a strong conclusion and in favor of further research.

One of Mr. Greenspan’s fellow board members, Edward M. Gramlich, urgently warned about the inadequate regulation of subprime mortgages. But judging at least from his 2007 book, “Subprime Mortgages,” he did not warn about a housing bubble, let alone that its bursting would have any systemic consequences.

The article also speaks to the pressures that Shiller felt to conform with those around him. Warren Buffett touches on this when he talks about the reciprocation used on company boards and challenging anyone is akin to belching in public.

In my position on the panel, I felt the need to use restraint. While I warned about the bubbles I believed were developing in the stock and housing markets, I did so very gently, and felt vulnerable expressing such quirky views. Deviating too far from consensus leaves one feeling potentially ostracized from the group, with the risk that one may be terminated.

On the importance of having a good mental toolkit Shiller offers:

Why do professional economists always seem to find that concerns with bubbles are overblown or unsubstantiated? I have wondered about this for years, and still do not quite have an answer. It must have something to do with the tool kit given to economists (as opposed to psychologists) and perhaps even with the self-selection of those attracted to the technical, mathematical field of economics. Economists aren’t generally trained in psychology, and so want to divert the subject of discussion to things they understand well. They pride themselves on being rational. The notion that people are making huge errors in judgment is not appealing.

The full article can be found here.