Thursday, September 18, 2008

The power of myths to (mis)interpret dramatic events

I enjoy and appreciate the work of financial analysts and journalists who write for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and other such periodicals. I also find it hard not to sneak a peek at the comments passionate readers post at the papers’ online sites. These comments sometimes offer psychological insights into how investors might respond to market events and other times are just good for a hoot.

On days like yesterday, when the Dow dropped 449 points following the $85 billion Fed bailout of A.I.G., one would think the economic events themselves would offer readers all the drama they could handle. It turns out that’s not the case. Yesterday, drama queens of all genders chimed in by the hundreds to comment on the events of the day. They reminded me that everybody fancies themselves an analyst who yearns to share their findings and influence decision-makers.

While reading their irate, simplistic, cynical, obsessive, hectoring, lecturing, and occasionally insightful comments, I also pondered the power of myths to explain and interpret frightening times and to give comfort. In the reader comments I read I saw the financial market meltdown and theoretical solutions explained most frequently in terms of good vs. evil; redemption through failure; redemption through sacrifice; the great savior; the hero’s journey; purification through disaster, et cetera—and I do mean et cetera!

One of several conclusions I came to at the end of a long day, spent trying to get a handle on what these financial events might mean for the legal industry, is that neither analysts nor decision-makers are immune from the influence of mythology to interpret dramatic events.

Although analysts might be justified in (and get away with) harnessing the power of myths when presenting actionable intelligence to decision-makers, we must guard against letting myths influence the hypotheses we test and the evidence we gather and consider (or fail to gather and consider).

Sometimes we really will find something new under the sun.

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