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The current financial crisis has once again focused attention on lawyers, corporate directors and auditors as gatekeepers, who are expected to introduce some degree of cognitive independence to the task of risk assessment and risk management in public companies, including financial services firms. This essay examines the psychological and cultural forces that may distort risk perception and risk motivation in hyper-competitive firms, beyond the standard economic incentives associated with agency costs and moral hazards, warning gatekeepers against too easily assuming that all is well when insiders display high levels of intensity, focus and devotion to hard-to-achieve goals. In fact, these may be the source of perceptual problems. It includes a section entitled “Three Variations on a Theme by Chuck Prince,” based on his famous reference to Citigroup having to dance because the music was still playing. Building on this metaphor, we look at the emotional and physiological impulses to dance into a frenzy, the pressure to win the dance competition, and dancing as performance for a fickle audience. The essay concludes by connecting culture to moral rationalizations—Goldman Sachs doing “God’s work”— and the exercise of individual power in organizations, and urges caution about the psychological and cultural forces that affect gatekeepers, too.

Publication Citation

96 Cornell L. Rev. 1209-1246 (2011)