Self-fulfilling prophecies: What causes a bank to fail?

Picture: KK

We talk about self-fulfilling prophecies when something we have predicted comes true as a result of our conscious and unconscious actions. Jack Bryson, university assistant in the Ada Lovelace Programme, is using modelling and simulations to find out which social science phenomena can cause banks to fail.

We encounter self-fulfilling prophecies in various areas: If a teacher believes in a particular pupil, she may unconsciously pay more attention to them, which can ultimately lead to better performance. Jack Bryson, university assistant at the Management Control and Strategic Management Unit, is investigating self-fulfilling prophecies in the banking sector. For this purpose, he asks himself: What can cause a bank to fail? “The advantage of working with modelling and simulations is that we don’t have to wait for a calamity to occur before we can investigate it empirically. We can safely simulate a reality and then test what happens when we apply different variables,” says Jack Bryson.

Banks and bank failures are complex systems. Jack Bryson explains: “A bank may be in excellent shape, but then self-fulfilling prophecies become its undoing. Suppose there is a rumour that the bank is about to collapse. Faced with this, a person withdraws their money, goes home and tells their neighbour and their tennis partner to withdraw their money as well. If a large number of people do this, the bank is in real danger”, Jack Bryson continues. The initial premise of such self-fulfilling prophecies can be completely irrational. For researchers like Jack Bryson, the goal is to describe the behaviour of the many social actors and then to run simulations. But where does one start? “We must first create simple descriptions involving as few variables as possible. We can subsequently make the model increasingly sophisticated in order to capture reality as closely as possible.”

Jack Bryson’s tools stem from mathematics and statistics. When asked whether he has always enjoyed these subjects or has simply grown to like them, he explains: “It takes time to master these methods. The famous switch often only clicks when you realise that it’s not about finding the solution, but about finding the way to the solution.” Jack Bryson’s first steps on the path to science were interdisciplinary: After high school, he attended Hampden-Sydney, a liberal arts college in Virginia, where he completed a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematical Economics. The son of a single mother was supported by merit-based scholarships. The aim of this degree programme was to equip students with skills in many subjects and to prepare them to go into the workplace or to pursue further university studies. Jack Bryson opted to complete a Master’s degree in Finance at the UVA McIntire School of Commerce. Bryson went on to gain professional experience as a web designer. From 2019, Jack Bryson worked two jobs: In the evenings, he coordinated and trained the staff at a restaurant in Georgetown, and during the day he worked at a bank in Arlington, where he advanced from teller to relationship banker. In both cases, Jack Bryson worked with people and both involved improving processes and introducing innovations. One particular challenge at the bank was the takeover of another bank, a process that saw him conduct training sessions with employees.

In corporate practice, Jack Bryson soon realised that: Everyday life throws up many questions and there is not enough time to find answers. Friends of friends drew his attention to the position advertised for the Ada Lovelace Programme at the University of Klagenfurt: “During the challenging pandemic years, I was in the midst of complex social phenomena. Now I have the unique opportunity to describe and scientifically analyse these kinds of phenomena”, he tells us. Cultural differences also play a role here: “Behavioural assumptions are often linked to culture and social identities. Keeping this in mind helps to make the simulations more robust.”

By working with Friederike Wall (Management Control and Strategic Management Unit) and Christian Bettstetter (Department of Networked and Embedded Systems) Jack Bryson has two supervisors at the University of Klagenfurt who support him with their professional expertise and international networks. Starting next autumn, he will also be leading a revision course for the first time, which he is particularly looking forward to, “because this is not common in doctoral positions in the USA”, and he enjoys introducing business students to mathematically complex content.

The conditions for growing as a scientist couldn’t be better, says Jack Bryson: “I have an office to myself here, but I was recently asked if I would host a visiting professor for a few days in the autumn. The person in question is Serge Galam, who has studied Trump as a socio-physical phenomenon and who is an internationally renowned scientist. That brought me great joy: What a wonderful opportunity to be sitting next to such exceptionally smart people!”

A few words with … Jack Bryson

  • What motivates you to work in science?

    I often take up an opposing view of the status quo, and find paradoxes and mysteries fascinating. Not trying to argue, I just like thinking—hey, maybe there’s something else going on here?

  • Do your parents understand what it is you are working on?

    My family has worked with and for people their whole lives—from volunteering at the local food bank, to creating a safe space for inner city children after school. They know my intention to study social interactions is rooted in my upbringing.

  • What’s the first thing you do in the morning?

    I try meditating for just 5 or 10 minutes, and read a daily devotion out of a book I share with my mom, aunt, and grandparents back in Virginia.

  • Do you have proper holidays? Without thinking about your work?

    Absolutely, I can take my mind and body away from my work and visit new cities, run races, snowboard, hike, read, and spend quality time with my people… but I find it enjoyable to see parallels back to my topic, and take inspiration from unexpected places as useful analogies for the pursuit of my dissertation.

  • What calms you down?

    Being near water, and running.

  • Who do you regard as the greatest scientist in history, and why?

    I am greatly impacted by my sense of sight, so I would say Galileo is my favourite scientist for his desire to look where no one had looked before.

  • What are you looking forward to?

    Working with students, and making the classroom a place people want to keep coming back to.