Why bankers behave badly

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City of LondonStefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Press Association Images

A new study from the University of California in Berkeley has found that people in privileged positions behave badly in a range of situations. Apparently they are more likely to lie, steal, cheat and endorse the behaviour of others who are crossing the line.

So why is this, and what does it say about those in highly privileged positions in the financial services industry?

The study

The Psychologists combined a couple of field studies with some laboratory experiments. First they watched the behaviour of people at a crossroads in San Francisco. They found that drivers in posher, better maintained cars were more likely to jump the queue rather than waiting their turn - in fact while 10% in dodgy cars pushed in, closer to a third in the classier cars did. They then moved to a pedestrian crossing where they discovered that drivers in the shoddiest cars were also more likely to stop for pedestrians.


Finally they ran a series of trials in the laboratory. In one they were asked to play a dice game on the computer and told to record their score. Although the game was designed to give everyone a high score, those from the upper classes were more likely to lie and record an even higher score.

In another test, participants were asked to read stories of people behaving badly, and then comment on whether they would do something similar and whether they approved of the behaviour of the characters in the stories. Those from the upper classes were more likely to condone the bad behaviour.

Posher behave worse

Time and again those in the upper classes displayed the worst behaviour. The researchers concluded not that being posh meant that you were fundamentally less likely to be ethical, but that because society has rewarded these people for their actions, they are more likely to be able to justify their poor behaviour.

In a society where bankers are elevated to such high status, and rewarded so handsomely, it would be easy for them to fall into this trap. It goes some way to explain the levels of risk-taking and the extreme positions certain individuals found themselves in - which has ultimately brought the country to its knees

Bankers need to be watched

It demonstrates just how essential it is for regulators and organisations themselves to be hands-on in examining the behaviour of individuals to ensure it isn't straying into the kind of territory the researchers observed.

A spokesman for the Financial Services Authority told AOL: "The FSA sets out a clear expectation that those working in financial services should act with integrity." The question is whether every individual is up to the task, and whether every organisation has a clear enough oversight of every high level employee to ensure they are not reverting to type.

Science shows that there will always be those bankers who think they can behave unethically and get away with it. History shows us that there have always been individuals who have slipped through the net. So are we doomed to face a continual stream of scandals? Will we be left bailing out bank after bank? Or is there a better solution?

Let us know in the comments.

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