On 11 August 2011, Bob Diamond, chief executive of Barclays, delivered the BBC Today Programme business lecture. In it he declared that “culture” was the critical element in responsible banking, and the best test of it is “how people behave while no one is watching.” We now know that banking failed the test and so must ask why, in Sir Mervyn King’s words, “excessive compensation”, “shoddy treatment of customers”, “mis-selling” and “the deceitful manipulation of a key interest rate”, flourished in the banking sector. Cognitive neuroscience can point to some answers.
Senior bankers hold enormous power, greater than that of many elected national leaders. Largely unaccountable except to occasional shareholders meetings and often quiescent boards, their power is much less constrained than that of democratically elected leaders. And given that power is one of the most potent brain-changing drugs known to humankind, unconstrained power has enormously distorting effects on behaviour, emotions and thinking.