Tuesday night’s Nova episode on PBS –“Mind Over Money” (April 27) — waded into the continuing debate over what went wrong to produce the recent economic collapse. Coincidentally, Goldman Sachs executives spent the day explaining themselves to the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations. Meanwhile, biglaw leaders around the world anxiously await the April 29 release of this year’s Am Law 100 rankings.

Maybe these things are related.

Nova interviewed scientific researchers who think they’ve identified the human brain’s unique response to money. MRIs show that it activates deep recesses in the mind — areas that evolutionists believe we share with the earliest forms of life, such as lizards.

Once engaged, those impulses become as powerful as any addiction and as strong as the instincts for sex and survival. They dominate our actions in ways that explain why, for example, people hold on to losing stocks too long and new participants in an auction experiment routinely bid more than $20 for a twenty-dollar bill. It’s not just that the efficient markets model of economic rationality fails; affirmatively irrational behavior takes over.

If these researchers are correct, money itself triggers something that can combine with competition and ego to produce a dangerous mix. When a subconscious reaction to dollar signs overrides rational thought, the resulting decisions can be — shall we say — problematic.

What’s the connection to Goldman Sachs and the Am Law 100? I’m not suggesting that obviously intelligent people at GS did anything illegal. Judges and juries will make that determination someday. Nor am I criticizing leaders of large or small law firms who pay attention to revenues and costs because they need to make a living, just like everybody else. The practice of law has never been an eleemosynary endeavor and never will be.

Still, the research shines an interesting light on the intersection of human behavior and free market capitalism. Just as stratospheric quarterly profits propelled Goldman to develop novel vehicles that continued to feed its insatiable profits beast, perhaps the fixation on annual Am Law rankings triggers an inner impulse in biglaw leaders that even they themselves don’t realize. When a money-laden thought — like average equity profits per partner — becomes a definitive decisional metric that defines professional standing and institutional culture, does reason become a casualty?

If so, what’s the antidote?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. There’s not much incentive to recover from a socially acceptable addiction that defines who too many of us are.

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