Bankers are more likely to cheat, at least according to one worrying experiment

“Our results suggest that the banking industry undermines the honesty norm"

Steve Connor
Wednesday 19 November 2014 19:00 GMT
In the test, participants were asked to repeatedly flip a coin and report the results
In the test, participants were asked to repeatedly flip a coin and report the results (Corbis)

The banking industry fosters a culture of dishonesty, according to a new scientific study which shows that bank employees are more likely to cheat when reminded about which profession they belonged to.

A test designed to expose levels of cheating revealed that bank employees are generally as honest as other people, but that they switch to being significantly more dishonest when in the mindset of their workplace.

The scientists who carried out the work suggested that the banking industry could address the problem by introducing a code of ethical conduct, similar to the Hippocratic Oath sworn by doctors, to instil a culture of honesty, rather than focusing on short-term personal gain.

The researchers, led by Michel Marechal of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, asked 128 employees of a large international bank to take part in tests where they were asked to toss a coin in secrecy for a given number of times and to report the results.

The participants knew beforehand that they would be given a $20 reward for each specific toss of the coin so there was an incentive to be dishonest about the total number of “heads” and “tails” – which in theory should be roughly 50:50.

Most people who undertake this kind of test, even when there is considerable financial incentive to cheat, are surprisingly honest about the outcome, the scientists found. Even the bank employees were as honest as other employees when treated as if their profession was unknown.

However, when the bank employees were “primed” to think about their job with questions such as “at which bank are you presently employed?” they reported 58.2 per cent winning tosses, which was significantly greater than the 51.6 per cent of the control group on non-bankers.

“This effect is specific to bank employees, because control experiments with employees from other industries and with students show that they do not become more dishonest when their professional identity or bank-related items are rendered salient,” the researchers write in their study published in the journal Nature.

“Our results thus suggest that the prevailing business culture in the banking industry weakens and undermines the honesty norm, implying that measures to reestablish an honest culture are very important,” they say.

The scientists suggested that the prevailing business culture in the banking industry favours dishonest behaviour and so contributed to the loss of the industry’s reputation following the global financial crisis of 2008.

“Our results suggest that banks should encourage honest behaviours by changing the norms associated with their workers’ professional identity,” the researchers say.

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