“Something is Happening Here”

Our minds are boggled by the recent scandals.   What is so hard to grasp is how Governor Blagojevich’s could think his attempts to sell Obama’s senate seat would not be uncovered?  How could Bernard Madoff’s believe his 50 billion dollar Ponzi scheme could succeed.  Where is reality in this?

It is not as difficult to grasp how others are deceived by such acts.  The persistence of old perceptions and the desire to believe can easily override normal doubt, particularly in a group context where the group sets up norms to which members silently conform.  But how can the “perpetrators” come to believe that they will not be found out?  Are they sociopaths, without the regulating influence of conscience?  Are they in a state of manic denial?  Could they be psychotic?  Clearly, they seem to be narcissistic, but that is hardly enough to account for such extravagant misbehavior.

These are the kinds of explanations we tend to use to account for such individual acts of self-deception, but none of them seem to fit what we know about the personalities involved.  How does fraud lose touch with reality?

First of all, there must be something about our culture that supports such audacious gambles, such extraordinary ambitions.  We have seen again and again over the past decades a number of people who seemingly arise out of nowhere to possess great wealth and fame.  It has become something of a norm, and because we tend to assume that people are responsible for their own achievements and celebrity we discount the collective efforts that lie behind such accomplishments.  In effect, we encourage a kind of delusion about what it takes to succeed.  False expectations and standards are set up.

But while that may explain how such unrealistic expectations are established, how they become goals for many to aspire to, that is not enough to explain these scandals.  I suspect that what happened here is a more gradual process.  Each man, aiming for great success, no doubt, ventured to break the rules bit by bit, starting small and then venturing more as they found they got away with it.  A little graft, to test the waters, a little cooking of the books.

Their beginning successes, no doubt, then convinced them to venture more, to up the ante — and that seemed to work as well.  At some point, they must have become convinced that the old realities just did not apply.  And it must have been that they found supporters and assistants who seemed to confirm their new beliefs along the way and they lost touch with or severed connections with those who might have challenged their judgment.  As they ventured further and further out on the thin ice, it did not break;  they became more and more confident.  Maybe the ice wasn’t so thin after all.

Another analogy:  if you put frogs in a pot of cold water and then turn on the heat, the frogs will stay in the pot until they die.  There is no signal to warn them of danger, and so they stay put until it is to late.  Indeed, they may well be enjoying their warmer environment as they lose touch with it.  Similarly our consciousness can fail to warn us about a significant shift in our environment, until is too late to change.   

In both cases, it seem clear that there were warning signs;  suspicions were aroused.  Perhaps the lesson here is that others need to be more vigilant in following up the signs of fraud, but also that we need to be more careful to speak up in the presence of delusions.  Fraud of such magnitude requires assistance if not outright collusion.  It remains to be seen who will stand accused or convicted in these cases.  But it cannot be that these were simply individual acts.