It turns out that the old saw about not making a deal with a banker might have some basis in reality. According to a November 19th report from the Associated Press, a team of Swiss economics researchers undertook a study which suggests that bankers are more dishonest than others when thinking about their jobs.

The article, written by AP science writer Seth Borenstein, highlighted that when workers at a bank were asked about their home life, they were generally as honest as members of the general public. However, bank  employees who had just been answered questions about their jobs at the bank cheated 16% more on average.

Dishonest banks Banking industry

Banking industry culture seems to create dishonesty

“Bank employees are not more dishonest than others,” commented Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich, author of the study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. But it seems, he said, they become more dishonest when thinking about their job, so apparently there is something about the culture of banking that “seems to make them more dishonest.”

American Bankers Association rebuttal

The American Bankers Association was not impressed by the research. “While this study looks at one bank, America’s 6,000 banks set a very high bar when it comes to the honesty and integrity of their employees. Banks take the fiduciary responsibility they have for their customers very seriously.”

Six experts in business ethics and psychology praised the study to some extent. Duke University behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely said he agreed with the study authors that one solution to consider is an oath for bankers along the lines of physicians’ Hippocratic oath.

University of Louisville psychologist Michael Cunningham noted that while the study is certainly thought-provoking, it is too broad to draw any real-life conclusions about the banking industry from it.

Study methodology

The authors of the study worked with 128 employees at a single, unnamed bank (even the country was not revealed).

The researchers gave the subjects a pretty standard honesty test. They were told to flip a coin 10 times and each time they flipped they could earn $20 if it matched what researchers had requested (heads or tails). An honest person would report matching the requested flip result about 50% of the time.

Of note, when they were asked questions about their work at the bank, meaning their jobs were at the forefront of their minds, the bank employees self-reported results that paid off 58% of the time.

Of interest, when the researchers did the test again with more than 350 people not in banking industry, job-related questions did not have an impact on honesty levels. As a follow up, the study researchers tested 80 employees of other banks, and came up with very similar results as they had from the main bank.