How the Ancient Rabbinic Courts Prevented the Perils of Groupthink

When Alan Greenspan was chairman of the Federal Reserve, he reportedly conducted meetings of the Fed’s Open Market Committee by going around the table and asking the 17 members for their opinions. Only after the others had spoken would Greenspan, a towering figure in American economic policy, render his own judgment.

Dr. Eliezer Schnall, clinical assistant professor of psychology at Yeshiva University

With the U.S. economy currently in shambles, one can easily question the wisdom of the decisions Greenspan presided over during his 19 years at the Fed. But his practice of having junior group members speak before their seniors is an excellent way to avoid the sort of myopia to which elite groups, operating under high pressure, often succumb.

That, at any rate, is the argument advanced in a paper presented this month to the American Psychological Association by Eliezer Schnall, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at Yeshiva University, who finds a precedent for Greenspan’s format in the Sanhedrin—the 70-member rabbinic court of ancient Israel.

The crux of Schnall’s thesis is that this format, practiced by Greenspan in the boardroom and the Sanhedrin in adjudicating capital cases—can offer valuable lessons in countering the psychological phenomenon known as groupthink. In groupthink, a group’s desire for unanimity trumps its interest in dispassionately weighing all potential options.

“The rabbis, through their study of the Torah and their insight into human nature, had some intriguingly insightful methods,” Schnall told JTA in a recent interview.

Among those methods was the Sanhedrin’s requirement that matters of capital crimes be discussed separately in small groups before a final verdict was reached. Schnall also cites several procedures aimed at ensuring that divergent views were given a fair hearing, including the requirement that outside experts be summoned in certain situations, and that a “devil’s advocate” be appointed to argue on behalf of the accused if the accused declined to do so. Read the full article at the JTA…

Read more about “Irving Janis’ Groupthink and the Sanhedrin of Ancient Israel”—which was presented by Dr. Schnall and his student, Michael Greenberg, at the American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention on August 7—at The New York Times