Behaviour: Revisiting honesty in banking culture

Article: Heterogeneity in banker culture and its influence on dishonesty. DOI

Behaviour: Revisiting honesty in banking culture

The honesty of bank employees does not seem to be strongly modified when they think about their job according to a study published in Nature this week. These findings are in contrast to previous research—also published in Nature—that reported an increase in dishonesty when bankers were reminded of their professional identity.

Banking culture has been subject to public scrutiny and levels of trust in the banking industry have been low in light of recent scandals, such as the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Attempts to measure honesty in this field are rare but have the potential to influence policymakers and public opinion.

In 2014, Alain Cohn and colleagues measured honesty in 128 employees from a large international investment bank, using a coin-flip game in which participants self-reported winning tosses (each of which yielded a US$20 reward). They found that prompting the participants to think about their profession seemed to encourage cheating. In a new study, Zoe Rahwan and colleagues replicate the experiment in five different populations across three continents, with 768 bankers and 514 non-bankers. No significant increase in dishonesty was observed when the bankers were primed to think about their work. These results indicate that the conclusions of the 2014 study cannot be generalized beyond the original population sampled, Rahwan and colleagues suggest. They propose that professional culture may vary according to banking segments, individual institutions, jurisdictions or across countries, and call for new approaches to measure honesty in the financial industry.

In an accompanying Matters Arising, Cohn and colleagues write “…it remains unclear to what extent the study is informative about the generalizability of our findings to other relevant contexts”. They highlight differences between their original study and the new work, such as the type of banking institutions sampled, which could explain the conflicting conclusions. They also note that many people in the financial sector may have been aware of their study, which they suggest may have affected the decision to participate or the responses given in the study by Rahwan and coauthors.

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