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From the Sanhedrin to Alan Greenspan, strategies to avoid the perils of groupthink

by Ben Harris, JTA

August 22, 2011 | 3:15 pm

Alan Greenspan

Alan Greenspan

When Alan Greenspan was chairman of the Federal Reserve, he reportedly conducted meetings of the Fed’s Open Market Committee by going around the table and asking the 17 members for their opinions. Only after the others had spoken would Greenspan, a towering figure in American economic policy, render his own judgment.

With the U.S. economy currently in shambles, one can easily question the wisdom of the decisions Greenspan presided over during his 19 years at the Fed. But his practice of having junior group members speak before their seniors is an excellent way to avoid the sort of myopia to which elite groups, operating under high pressure, often succumb.

That, at any rate, is the argument advanced in a paper presented this month to the American Psychological Association by Eliezer Schnall, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at Yeshiva University, who finds a precedent for Greenspan’s format in the Sanhedrin – the 70-member rabbinic court of ancient Israel.

The crux of Schnall’s thesis is that this format, practiced by Greenspan in the boardroom and the Sanhedrin in adjudicating capital cases – can offer valuable lessons in countering the psychological phenomenon known as groupthink. In groupthink, a group’s desire for unanimity trumps its interest in dispassionately weighing all potential options.

“The rabbis, through their study of the Torah and their insight into human nature, had some intriguingly insightful methods,” Schnall told JTA in a recent interview.

Among those methods was the Sanhedrin’s requirement that matters of capital crimes be discussed separately in small groups before a final verdict was reached. Schnall also cites several procedures aimed at ensuring that divergent views were given a fair hearing, including the requirement that outside experts be summoned in certain situations, and that a “devil’s advocate” be appointed to argue on behalf of the accused if the accused declined to do so.

“Remember, this is not taking place in the United States in the 21st century, but in the Middle East almost 2,000 years ago,” Schnall said. “There are places in the world today, areas of the Middle East and elsewhere, where free expression is taboo. The idea that they had those kinds of approaches to leadership 2,000 years ago is something truly extraordinary. And that point can be missed if it’s not underlined.”

Perhaps most striking of all was the Sanhedrin’s automatic rejection of a decision in capital cases in which all of its members agreed. That practice flies in the face of American judicial practice, where many state trials, and all federal trials, require a jury to render a unanimous verdict in a criminal case.

Irving Janis, a researcher at Yale University pioneered the notion of groupthink in the 1970s. Janis’ central contention was that the greater the homogeneity and cohesiveness among a group of decision-makers, the greater the danger that independent thinking would suffer and irrational outcomes would result.

The idea turned out to be enormously influential, and it has been applied over the years to a wide range of real-world situations, from political decisions to corporate failures. Famous studies have used groupthink models to explain disasters such as the Bay of Pigs invasion, in which the United States unsuccessfully sought to overthrow the government of Cuba, and the nation’s lack of preparedness when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Similarly, Schnall believes that his findings are more than a historical oddity, providing real, practical guidance to decision-makers seeking to avoid the perils of groupthink in both the private and public sectors. Schnall submitted a version of his paper to a journal on business management precisely because of his belief in its value to business and governmental leaders.

“There really are a lot of links now between spirituality and the business world,” said Crystal Park, a professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Management, Spirituality and Religion. Park also served as a discussant during the session in which Schnall presented his paper to the APA.

“This is a big and growing area,” Park said. “And it’s a place where psychologists really have a lot to say about how psychology fits into the business world.”

An ordained rabbi, Schnall appears to be carving out a niche for himself with his research demonstrating the value of traditional Jewish practices in light of contemporary psychological theorizing. Major media outlets reported on a seven-year study of 90,000 women Schnall published in 2008 which found that those who attended religious services at least once a week were one-fifth less likely to die during the course of the study than those who did not. In 2010, he produced a study showing that Orthodox marriages are happier, on average, than secular ones.

The confluence of Jewish wisdom and modern social science in his research is, Schnall says, a result of his efforts to fuse Torah with secular wisdom, or Torah U’madda, the Y.U. motto. In his courses, he regularly seeks out examples from Jewish literature of the psychological concepts he is teaching, something he finds helpful to students who spend a large portion of their time studying religious texts.

But Schnall is also cautious not to draw conclusions from his work that assume too much. In the women’s health study, he declined to speculate on the reasons for the lower death rate, noting only the correlation. And despite his claim that his work is relevant to contemporary situations, Schnall refused to say whether he sees any current manifestations of groupthink among the country’s leaders.

“I don’t choose to be a current events commentator,” Schnall said. “I’m happy to cite those who have suggested that perhaps the decision to invade Iraq may have been the result of groupthink. I’m not trying to draw that kind of judgment.”

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