Bank employees are slightly less honest than the rest of us

Bank employees primed to think about their jobs fudged their coin-toss stats for cash, researchers found

bankers are cheaters

(Illustration by Kagan McLeod)

Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, bankers have been facing increased suspicion that they’re all a bunch of liars. According to new research from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, there’s something to that hunch: when bank employees were primed to think about their finance-industry jobs, they were more likely to cheat at a simple task with a monetary reward.

The study’s authors split 128 employees from a large, international bank into two groups. One filled out a survey about their personal lives, and the other answered questions about their background in banking. All of the participants were told to report the results of 10 unsupervised coin flips; for each correct guess they reported to the researchers, participants collected $20.

The findings showed that most people were honest, but those who were reminded about their banking jobs were more likely to cheat. Those who were asked about their personal lives said they won 51.6% of tosses—a statistical result that would suggest they behaved honestly.  Those participants who were asked to talk about their banking jobs said they won coin tosses 58.2% of the time—far more often than probability predicts. About 10% claimed perfect scores—the chances of which are less than one in a thousand.

When the experiment was repeated with 133 employees at other companies in different industries, like manufacturing, telecommunications and information technology, the dishonest behaviour wasn’t found.

The study’s authors think that bank employees are essentially honest, but that cultural norms at their workplaces can induce them into dishonest behaviour. It suggests that changing the work culture at large financial institutions would be the most effective way to combat financial jiggery-pokery.