Are bankers really more dishonest?

Nobody likes a merchant banker, and a new report in Nature, Business culture and dishonesty in the banking industry, makes the case that such distaste may have a sound basis: Bankers who took a survey which asked questions about their jobs behaved more dishonestly than bankers who took a survey which addressed mundane, everyday topics, such as how much television they watched per week. It’s a catchy claim. But in contrast to the headlines, the data suggest something else: bankers were more honest overall than other groups, and at worst no more dishonest.

Each group of bankers was asked to toss a coin 10 times and report, online and anonymously, how often it landed on each side. They were told that each time the coin landed on a particular side (heads for some, tails for others), they could win $20 dollars.

The group who took the job-related survey reported 58.2% successful coin flips, while the control group reported 51.6% successful coin flips. Thus, the authors argued, priming the bankers with their professional identity made them more likely to dishonestly claim that they had tossed coins more successfully than they actually had.

To follow this up, the authors conducted two more studies with different populations, non-banking professionals and students. For these two groups, there was no effect of priming with professional identity; control groups and “treatment” (i.e. primed) groups performed similarly. Hence, the headline finding that making bankers think about their professional identity as bankers made them more dishonest. Other groups did not become more dishonest when primed with their professional identity, and thus there is something about banking and banking culture that makes an honest person crooked.

But more dishonest than who?

Curiously, what is glossed over in the main paper – instead it can be found in the extended figures and the supplementary information – is that what was different about the results from the non-banking professionals and students is that the control groups were as dishonest as the primed groups. In fact, of all the groups, the odd one out is the banking control group. Whereas the banking control group reported 51.6% successful coin flips, the non-banker and student control groups reported 59.8% and 57.9% respectively. The primed banking group reported 58.2% successful flips, while the non-banker and student primed groups reported 55.8% and 56.4% respectively.

If we collapse across the control and primed groups and simply look at the average success rate for each sample population, on average, bankers reported 54.6% successful coin flips, non-banking professionals 57.8%, and students 57.15%. Thus, overall, the bankers were the most honest group.

So maybe the headline should be that bankers are more honest than other groups, until they’re reminded that they’re bankers. Then they’re as dishonest as everyone else (or at least, non-banking professionals, and students).

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