The University of Zurich experiment found that bank employees were more likely to cheat when they had been reminded that they worked for a bank.
The findings, reported this morning in the journal Nature, suggest that people with “weaker honesty norms” are not automatically attracted to the cashed-up industry. Rather, the prevailing business culture undermines honesty.
In the study, 128 employees of an unnamed international bank were asked to fill out short online surveys. Half were asked “filler” questions, like how much TV they watched, while the others were asked about their roles at the bank.
The participants were then told to toss a coin 10 times in private and report the results online. They were told they could win $20 for every “successful” toss, and advised in advance whether that was heads or tails.
Participants who had been “primed” with questions about their professional identity collectively claimed winning throws 58 per cent of the time, compared to 52 per cent for the others.
Similar large-scale coin tossing experiments have been shown to reliably measure dishonest behaviour, the researchers said, with a 50 per cent result indicating honest reporting. The new study suggests bankers are up to 26 per cent more likely to cheat simply if their professional identity is made “salient” to the exercise.
The researchers repeated the experiment with manufacturing, pharmaceutical, telecommunications and IT workers, and found that questions about their occupations made no difference.
“Our results suggest that banks should encourage honest behaviour by changing the norms associated with their workers’ professional identity,” the researchers concluded.
They backed recent calls for a “banker’s oath” modelled on the Hippocratic oath taken by doctors. “(It) could prompt bank employees to consider the impact of their behaviour on society rather than focusing on their own short-term benefits,” the paper says.
In a related experiment, bank employees were rated less scrupulous not only than doctors but also prison inmates. Randomly chosen participants were asked to estimate the proportion of successful coin flips likely to be claimed by different groups.
They predicted that bankers would claim a 64 per cent success rate, compared to 60 per cent for prisoners, 58 per cent for the general population and 53 per cent for doctors. “The banking industry currently has a very bad reputation,” the researchers observed. (Agencies)