This may be the last time you trust “reason” in a crowd.
There are many psychological defects that make us do dumb things with money. We chase performance in the stock market and feel pressure from the next house over to buy fancy cars.
If you’ve read any personal finance blog for more than a week, you’ve probably heard some sort of encouragement to “be different” and separate wants from needs, etc., and all that sounds like good advice.
Personally, I’m not so sure it is. Personal finance advice too often focuses on telling you what to do and encouraging you to do it. It sets up the “Do I buy a new Lexus?” scenario as a rational dilemma with a clear answer and path to follow while summarily dismissing wanting to look good in front of the neighbors as the silly purview of broke cattlemen with big hats.
I’m a much bigger fan of avoiding those defects, through using defaults (automatic savings, auto bill pay, auto portfolio re-balancing) rather than trying to counteract the defects will all that positive thinking. This post is meant to show why.
In short, I’m not so sure we can fight the herd.
ABC runs a show called “What Would You Do?” on Fridays. It’s one of those rare shows that’s actually lasted more than a few episodes, but you really only need the plot of one to know how the rest work.
In an episode I saw a few months ago, a few men and women were put through a mock frat or sorority initiation on a public street. The activities were rather extreme with over-the-top physical and verbal abuse. Hidden cameras were rolling to see if anybody would try to stop it or if, instead, people might even join in.
Most people simply ignored the spectacle, one or two joined it, and I can only remember a couple actually trying to stop the abuse. The show, of course, is meant to make all of us think “Of course I would make them stop!” while showing that most people don’t.
To a social psychologist, the show’s probably not surprising one bit. If you put the onlookers alone in a room with the abuse going on, they might speak up, but in a crowd, suddenly all sense of individuality disappears. If the rest of the mob is doing nothing, best to not stand out. If the mob seems OK with an activity, it must be normal to be OK with the activity yourself.
What Would You Do? was a set-up, but there are several infamous examples of the same phenomenon.
You see a murder from your apartment window. What would you do?
In 1964, Kitty Genovese was stalked and stabbed to death in Queens, New York. The murder didn’t happen at once. She was attacked, left to stumble around, and finally killed about an hour later. Neighbors heard screams, might have seen the attacker, but did nothing. A famous New York Times article began with this chilling line: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.”
Some parts of the story were later discredited, but it’s since been taught in social psychology classes as evidence of the “bystander effect”. A few years after the Genovese murder, John Darley and Bibb Latane attempted to replicate seeming indifference to emergency situations in the lab.
In the Darley/Latane experiment, an undergraduate would be put into a room, alone, with an intercom. He or she was supposed to talk about difficulties of student life with other members of the group (who were supposedly in other rooms, kept private to protect their anonymity). As they took turns talking, one of them would mention that he suffered from seizures. Later in the conversation, the test subject would hear this:
I-er-um-I think I-I need-er-if-if could-er-er-somebody er-er-er-er-er-er-er give me a little-er-give me a little help here because-er-I-er-I’m-er-er-h-h-having a-a-a real problem- er-right now and I-er-if somebody could help me out it would-it would-er-er s-s-sure be-sure be good . . . because-er-there-er-er-a cause I-er-I-uh-I’ve got a-a one of the-er-sei–er-er-things coming on and-and-and I could really-er-use some help so if somebody would-er-give me a little h-help-uh-er-er-er-er-er c-could somebody-er-er-help-er-uh-uh-uh (choking sounds). . . . I’m gonna die-er-er-I’m . . . gonna die-er-help-er-er-seizure- er-[chokes, then quiet].
Seriously. It was in the script.
So guess how long it took the students to, you know, leave the room and tell somebody that someone else on the conference was having a seizure?
First problem: If there were 6 people on the call (subject, victim, and four others), only 31% ever reported it.
Second problem: Even if they did, it took the subject a full 2 minutes and 46 seconds on average after hearing that to go seek help.
If there were fewer people on the conference, the rates and speed of reporting went up. Being in a group of non-doers is was kept people from intervening.
You see someone about to jump off a building. What would you do?
September 2008. A 17-year old, suffering from a bad breakup, threatens to jump from a parking garage. Police negotiators spend three hours trying to talk him down. The crowd acts a bit differently. Here’s a quote from a security guard who was there: “The police did a fantastic job at the incident and were not helped by a baying crowd, some with children, calling for the lad to jump.”
The teenager jumped.
It’d be easy to pass off the cases as meanness or a lack of awareness of how serious the situations were. Part of it, however, is just herd mentality. If someone individually ran across a jumper, he’d probably call the police. Put in a group, that sense of responsibility dissipates. And once one person starts yelling out at the jumper, the rest feel more inclined to do it themselves.
I have the same visceral, disgusted reaction that you probably do. But sometimes I wonder if but for the grace of God, I could have been in that crowd.
(For a great post on the subject, check out You Are Not So Smart.)
And you think you stand a chance in personal finance?
John has a hot stock tip. Everyone at the barbecue nods in agreement.
Mary guilts you into coming to a charity auction. The bidding gets pretty heated.
You hear about money pouring into stocks or gold or whatever. And you wonder if you should come along too.
Or conversely, you feel like too much of your money is at risk in the stock market, but no one else seems to be concerned.
So tell me, what would you do? And are you so sure now that you see even in extremely terrible situations, so many people checked reason at the door and surrendered to the herd?
All the self-motivating, I-can-learn-my-way-out-of-anything things you think are going to bring you to financial fulfillment don’t hold a candle to the deep, deep psychological underpinnings that separate us from the machines.
You’re not going to reason your ways out of these problems. You need to learn why “reason” has nothing to do with them.