Are Bankers More Dishonest?

In an article titled Are Some Professions Less Honest Than Others? Bank On It, Researchers Find, the New York Times reported on an academic study which found that:

“______ were about as honest as anyone else—until they were reminded that they were ______.”

What was in the blanks?

What if I told you it was “African-Americans,” “Jews,” or “women”? What would you think? I bet you’d be horrified, disgusted, and outraged–without even bothering to find out how the study came to that conclusion.

What if it was “Democrats”? You probably wouldn’t believe it, but you would read further, and then blast the study for the shortcomings in its design, and lack of scientific rigor. If it was “Republicans,” many of you would chuckle and say “I knew it!”

But the blank wasn’t filled with any of the types of people I just mentioned. It said Bankers.

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Apparently, “researchers” (I have to put this in quotes, as their credibility has to be called into question) from a European university ran a test with 128 employees of an ‘international bank.” They found that a subset of them, who were asked what their profession was, were more likely to cheat when reporting the results of a series of coin tosses than those who were not asked what their profession was.

According to the Times, the “researchers” then concluded that if you remind a banker that s/he is a banker, they’ll be more likely to be dishonest. The NYT article went on to say:

“To confirm their findings, the researchers performed the study again with people from other professions. Those people did not become more dishonest when asked about their work.”

Really? No other profession demonstrated any degree of dishonesty? Not a single one? How many professions were studied? Is it not possible that members of other professions are dishonest without having to be reminded of what profession they work in?

The answer to these questions aren’t as easy to find as it should be. The Times’ online article includes a link to Nature where the study was published, but the link goes to an unrelated article. I’m sure that was an honest mistake on the part of a someone at the Times (who didn’t need to reminded that s/he was a journalist who is supposed to check the facts before publishing something).

It only took a little searching to find the right article. Reading it led me to a different interpretation than the Times’, however. The Nature article says:

“The team tried to replicate the pattern in other groups of people — for example, priming students to think about banking. But they did not see the same effect on the participants’ honesty levels.”

So it does not appear that the “researchers” asked car dealers to think about selling cars, and then tested their honesty. They tested whether or not thinking about “banking” made people who weren’t bankers more likely to be dishonest!

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If it’s in the New York Times it must be true, right?  I guess that we should assume that because the Times published this article, that the sample of 128 employees of this one bank are representative of the hundreds of thousands of people who work in banks across the globe.

And actually, since the sample was split, it’s probably more like 64 people who cheated and therefore besmirch all bankers everywhere.

No questioning things like “for how long did these people work in banking?” I mean, isn’t it possible that the 64 people in the group who cheated all worked in used car sales before joining the bank, and that, therefore, it’s really used car salespeople who are the lyin’ stealin’ cheaters?

And were there any ex-bankers among the people from other professions? Do lyin’ cheatin’ stealin’ bankers become good–all of a sudden–upon leaving the industry?

The results of this “study” are laughable. The lack of rigor in its design is plain and clear to anyone with half a brain.

But in its zeal to besmirch the banking industry, and the people who work in the industry (all of whom can be considered “bankers” apparently), the New York Times had no trouble running the article.

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All of this is bad enough. But what’s even more disturbing to me is the reaction I got from some people when I tweeted the link to the article, and pointed out the shortcomings of the study.

One person accused me of being a “career bank apologist.”

At the risk of incurring the wrath of the friend who sent me the link in the first place, in an email he said (among other things) “I’m not interested in a conversation that denies the findings out of hand.”

Well, that was the end of our conversation, of course, because I do deny and dismiss the findings out of hand.

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I don’t really care if you believe the study’s conclusions or not. You’re free to believe that bankers are generally more dishonest than people in other professions. That’s your prerogative.

But you can’t cite this study as proof of your beliefs. The study is seriously flawed.

And if you do harbor this belief that bankers are generally more dishonest than people in other professions, I don’t see how you can be outraged when other people harbor prejudices or biases against other groups of people. What makes their biases worse than yours? Do you really not see the hypocrisy of this?

If all this makes me a “bank apologist” so be it. I’d rather be an apologist than a hypocrite.

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