Is Cheating a Part of Banking Culture?

Some people perceive workers in the finance industry to be less trustworthy than prison inmates. A new study tests that suspicion.

Valentin Flauraud/Reuters

In college, I heard the words investment banking as early as my first year. It was 2004, I remember recruiters in nice suits arriving on campus to court the brightest economics students to work at their firm. Friends and classmates practiced hard and acquired new life skills: networking and convincing recruiters that on top of good grades, their personalities were a good fit for a firm's corporate culture. The last part was key, as everyone—including the career counsellors of our university—told us.

I eventually dropped out of the process, not only because my grades weren't as good, but my attention turned elsewhere (namely, my university's student newspaper in the dreary basement of the same building these recruitment sessions were held). Even though I abstractly wanted that huge paycheck, the long work hours discouraged me.

Nearly 10 years later, the same recruiters are having a harder time on campus in the fallout of the financial crisis. A 2012 study reported that the stressful environment of an investment banking job led entry level workers to develop physical and emotional problems. Banks are still posting stellar profits despite legal woes, but they no longer have the reputation they used to, and banking culture is under close scrutiny from Millennials.

A new paper in Nature takes a scientific approach to the accusations of dishonesty in the banking industry. The researchers designed a coin-flip experiment where participants were given an incentive to cheat. One hundred twenty-eight bank employees—bankers, asset managers, traders, investment managers and staff from support units with an average of 11.5 years of experience in the industry—and 350 employees from non-banking professions were asked to toss a coin 10 times, then report the results online. They were told which outcome would be a winning toss, that a winning toss would pay $20 and that they could keep the winnings if they beat another group's results.

The participants were sorted into two groups, one group primed with questions about their banking jobs and another group about how many hours of television they watched. The latter served as the control group, which reported 52 percent winning tosses. The primed bankers reported 58 percent winning tosses, leading the researchers to conclude that 26 percent of the subjects cheated. They add that 58 percent is "significantly above chance and significantly higher than the success rate reported by the control group."

The researchers repeated the study for 133 non-banking professionals and 222 students, and found that priming those participants with questions about their occupations did not result in less honesty.

Is it surprising this kind of priming would result in cheating? And lest those who recommend capping bonuses is a good way to fix this culture, the maximum reward for cheating in this experiment was only $200. The researchers note that the industry's reputation is hurt by exactly this perception: A survey of their participants found that they thought the bankers would be more dishonest than prison inmates in over-reporting successful coin flips.

A commentary on the study in the same issue of Nature, by economist Marie Claire Villeval, has some insight on the study's implications: "It was not Cohn and colleagues' aim to explain how business culture may encourage misbehavior. However, understanding how the culture of dishonesty evolves is an important issue and it is unlikely that the process is one way... If business culture goes wrong, then individuals may also develop unethical behavior. On the other hand, individual misconduct may also influence the evolution of business cultures towards more deviant collective norms," she writes.

In other words: In thinking about how to reform banking culture, we have to think about the chicken and the egg.