Sep. 27, 2011 at 2:38 PM ET
Disturbing new research about financial traders and their personalities may shed some light on the behavior of Kweku Adoboli, the so-called “rogue” UBS trader who allegedly lost the bank $2.3 billion through unauthorized trading.
A new study from a Swiss university finds that financial traders are more uncooperative than psychopaths and that they have a greater tendency for lying and risk-taking.
As part of their executive MBA thesis at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, forensic psychiatrist Thomas Noll, a chief administrator at the Pöschwies prison near Zurich, and co-author Pascal Scherrer studied the behavior of 28 financial traders in a decision-making game, comparing their performances with those of people who were diagnosed as psychopaths.
They expected to find that, like the psychopaths, the traders would be uncooperative with others, but that they’d perform better at the game because, as Noll said, traders “are supposed to be good at making money. In social interactions, they’re supposed to be good at performing.”
But the two authors were shocked to discover that the traders were actually more uncooperative and egocentric than psychopaths when playing a prisoner’s dilemma game -- a type of gaming scenario where participants can choose to cooperate or betray each other.
Moreover, even though the traders lied and took risks more than their psychopathic counterparts, their performance at the game was about the same as the control group. This means the traders not only didn’t play well with others, they also didn’t do any better at the game than regular Joes.
In their master’s thesis, Noll and Scherrer write:
“The outcome seems to indicate that bank traders are even more prone than psychopathic individuals to rely on strategies that do not optimize their own total profit but considerably harm the profit of their gaming partner. Healthy controls achieved the same profit on their own part as traders and psychopaths but used a strategy that led to an equal profit of their partner and hence led to the highest overall profit, whereas the lowest overall profit was achieved by the traders.”
Interestingly, the traders scored much lower than the psychopaths did on cold-heartedness and the externalization of guilt, meaning they didn’t place the blame on other people when they failed.
Noll wanted to emphasize that while the traders may have some psychopathic traits, they’re not card-carrying psychopaths. He says companies should take a closer look at the personalities of the traders they hire (cough, cough, UBS).
“It might be helpful in the recruiting process, for instance, to keep a better eye on what the personalities of these people are like,” he said. “If this test represents reality correctly, traders are not good at [making money]. They’re just as bad as everyone else.”
Tip of the hat to nymag.com, which also reported on the study.