What is it with bankers?

Bank employees, when primed to think about their finance-industry jobs, are more likely to cheat, researchers found in a study that tempted them with as much as $200.

Researchers recruited 128 bank employees from a large, international bank — which was given anonymity — and randomly assigned them to two groups. One filled out a survey about their personal lives, and the other answered questions about their banking background.

They were then told to toss a coin 10 times in private, and report the results. If they told researchers they guessed correctly on a toss, they collected $20 for each correct guess.

The people who'd been asked about their personal lives said they won 51.6 percent of tosses — a result that would suggest they behaved honestly. Those asked to talk about their banking jobs, though, told the researchers that they won coin tosses 58.2 percent of the time, more often than probability predicts, according to the study, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature on Wednesday.

The results in banking didn't carry over to other industries. When the experiment was repeated with 133 employees at other companies, including workers from manufacturing, telecommunications and information technology, no effect on dishonest behavior was found.

The authors of the study interpreted the data to mean that bank employees "are basically honest, but it's the cultural norms at the workplace that are making them dishonest," said researcher Michel Marechal, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Zurich, in a conference call with reporters.

In the group of bank workers primed to think about their jobs, 8 percent reported winning 10 out of 10 tosses, compared with 3 percent in the control group.

"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," said John Hall, a spokesman for the American Bankers Association, in an e-mail. "Banks take the fiduciary responsibility they have for their customers very seriously."