Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On tulip mania, big egos, and an opportunity for building a more balanced sense of well being

The financial crisis is evidently taking its toll in a place one might not have thought to look - the egos of men who work in finance - or so says an article in today's Science Times by psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman. And yes, it appears to be disproportionately the men rather than the women who are reacting with anxiety and loss of self-esteem, at least in Dr. Friedman's practice. As I read I thought, this is one of those times when a loss of self-esteem might not be inappropriate. I am one of those people who feel there should be some connection between the quality of one's behavior and the level of esteem at which one holds oneself. Dr. Friedman's article is thoughtful about this delicate balance. The most puzzling thing about the article for me was they way the word 'mastery' (as in attaining a high level in a skill or art) and master of the universe as in, well, some kind of god, were used almost interchangeably. If one attains a level of expertise in something, to feel one has lost it is painful. However, to allow the acquisition of a reasonable combination of skill and luck in anything - finance, golf, writing papers - to fill you with the sense that you run the universe would seem to be a failure to form a picture of the world based in reality. A crisis of confidence feels lousy, but if through it you build a more real perception of the world and yourself in it, that would strike me as a real opportunity for two people engaged in a mental health interaction - one who is serving the function of improving the mental health of others when possible, and the other engaged in an interaction that will hopefully lead to greater self knowledge and a more balanced sense of well being.

Dr. Friedman also brings up the neurotransmitter dopamine, and its key role in the reward circuitry of the human brain. He theorizes
for many of them, the previously expanding market gave them a sense of power along with something as strong as a drug: thrill.
He made me think anew about this crisis. One theories of drug addiction these days is that there may be a subset of people who live in a perpetual state of "unrewardedness" because they lack one of the receptor subtypes for dopamine (D2). They may end up becomming addicts to self-correct this natural void within. How many of those who worked in investment firms did so not because they enjoy a thrill but because they need one? When I read about past economic booms and their subsequent busts - e.g. tulip mania - a period in seventeenth century Holland during which the price of tulip bulbs soared to exceed the annual salaries of the average skilled worker by many times - the people involved appeared to participate in a kind of mass madness. When we have enough distance from the delusion that perpetuated our recent greed and the crisis of confidence that popped the bubble, perhaps it will strike us that this period was no different. Building reality checks both for individuals who need a thrill and for institutions who need profit might be desirable if they cannot help pursuing them. It further might be useful for us all, if their pursuit perpetuates a delusional sense of power, since we all seem to end up sharing in the delusion... or so Dr. Friedman's article made me reflect.

1 comment:

Sheila O'Malley said...

Fascinating!! Speculative bubbles are one of my pet obsessions ... and I can't remember where I read it but someone compared the stock market (you know, all big tough macho masters of the universe types) to a bunch of fainting dowagers, calling for smelling salts at the tiniest provocation. It is so true! There is nothing more emotional than the stock market.

I also like what you say about self-esteem.

I think that people who seem to have the best self-esteem can sometimes be the most socially boorish. A little bit of humility and awareness of where you fall short does A LOT to explain people who have impeccable good manners. It doesn't have to do with having high self-esteem - it has to do with being aware of other people BEFORE yourself.