Do dishonest people become bankers, or does banking make them dishonest?

It's complicated.

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Bad things happen in banking. There are rogue traders, tax evasion assisters, and key interest rate manipulators. And these bad actors can have catastrophic effects. (Subprime mortgage crisis anyone?)

So: Are there just a handful of badly behaved bankers out there, or does the culture of banking itself spur bad behavior? The answer, somewhat frustratingly, is: it’s complicated.

An evaluation of two commercial banks, one in the Middle East and another in Asia, reveals that bank employees are not more likely to be more dishonest than people from other professions, even when they are prompted to think about their jobs.

The findings were published in Nature this week. 

The results contrast those of a widely publicized 2014 research paper on the honesty of bankers. That study found that bankers were more likely to cheat in a coin-flip game after they were asked questions like: Which bank do you work for? How long have you been working in banking? Bankers who were asked about how they spend their leisure time, by comparison, cheated significantly less.

Michel Maréchal, professor at the University of Zurich and co-author of the 2014 study, tells Inverse that questions about banking bring the cultural norms of the industry to the forefront of bankers’ minds. In turn, those norms could guide their behavior.

“If you look at the level of cheating in our baseline condition, so the people who were not reminded of their occupational role, there were no signs of significant cheating,” Maréchal says. “This suggested that people who are bankers are not particularly dishonest.”

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Two studies have conflicted results when it comes to how honest banking culture is. 

The new study, led by Max Planck Institute for Human Development research scientist Zoe Rahwan, attempted to reproduce the same experiment in a new sample.

The results are surprising “as they don’t fit with the stereotype of bankers and banker culture,” Rahwan tells Inverse.

Avoiding scrutiny

In the study, 148 employees of a bank in the Middle East and 620 employees from a bank in Asia played the same coin-flip game, and, while some people did act dishonestly when prompted to think of banking, the group level of dishonesty wasn’t enough to be significant. The results could reflect variations in cultural norms around honesty at national, industry, and institutional levels, says Rahwan.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the team originally asked 27 banks to be in the study — but only two agreed. A lawyer who helped recruit the bankers told the researchers that the reluctance in participating stemmed from a concern that “the survey might identify weaknesses in their culture that they are worried might somehow be exposed.”

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Creating policies that drive better bank ethics is a huge challenge.

The limited sample may have led to a selection bias — something that Maréchal and his team point out in an accompanying commentary on Rahwan’s study. The publicity around the 2014 study could also have influenced the participation rates: Banks might not want to take part in a study that they know has made bankers look bad in the past.

But while the banks who participated in Rahwan’s research may have done so because they believe they have a good company culture, the study hold an important takeaway: You can’t generalize banks or bankers.

“Not all banks should be managed with one policy tool aimed at improving culture,” Rahwan says. Rather, she thinks policy-makers and regulators need to target specific banks based on clear indications that there’s a risk of a problematic culture.

Ultimately, the desire is for banks and bankers to be ethical. Science can help reveal the specifics needed for new rules and regulations that stick. Meanwhile, more research is needed on the cultural differences within banks to pinpoint the specific factors that influence company culture — both negatively and positively.

Until then, researchers are presented with a tricky challenge: How do you study how dishonest bankers are if the bankers don’t want to be studied?

“You can imagine that people who decide whether or not their employees should participate in a study about dishonesty would not want their banks to participate,” says Maréchal. “That’s the issue with replicating our study — it’s hard to find the banks who want to participate.”

Abstract:

The social sciences are going through what has been described as a ‘reproducibility crisis’. Highly influential findings derived from accessible populations, such as laboratories and crowd-sourced worker platforms, are not always replicated. Less attention has been given to replicating findings that are derived from inaccessible populations, and recent high-profile replication attempts explicitly excluded such populations . Pioneering experimental work4 offered a rare glimpse into banker culture and found that bankers, in contrast to other professionals, are more dishonest when they think about their job. Given the importance of the banking sector, and before academics or policy-makers rely on these findings as an accurate diagnosis of banking culture, an exploration of their generalizability is warranted. Here we conduct the same incentivized task with bankers and non-bankers from five different populations across three continents (n = 1,282 participants). In our banker studies in the Middle East and Asia Pacifc (n = 148 and n = 620, respectively), we observe some dishonesty, although—in contrast to the original study —this was not significantly increased among bankers primed to think about their work compared to bankers who were not primed. We also find that inducing non-banking professionals to think about their job does not have a significant effect on honesty. We explore sampling and methodological differences to explain the variation in findings in relation to bankers and identify two key points. First, the expectations of the general population regarding banker behaviour vary across jurisdictions, suggesting that banking culture in the jurisdiction of the original study may not be consistent worldwide. Second, having approached financial institutions, many of which expressed concerns of adverse findings, we expect that only banks with a sound culture participated in our study. The latter introduces possible selection bias that may undermine the generalizability of any similar feld study. More broadly, our study highlights the complexity of undertaking a high-fidelity replication of sensitive, highly publicized fieldwork with largely inaccessible populations resulting from institutional and geographical barriers. For policy-makers, this work suggests that caution should be exercised in generalizing the findings of the original study4 to other populations.