September 30, 2011

Who’s More Reckless: Stockbrokers or Psychopaths?

Study at a Swiss University offers surprising results

Outsiders to the financial world, growing increasingly angry over such events as the recent loss of $2.3 billion by UBS thanks to a rogue trader's actions, may be wondering why such behavior seems so pervasive in the world of high finance.

The results of a Swiss study may come as no surprise to people already inclined to think the worst of an industry that has seen a parade of events that included another rogue trader's loss of billions at Société Générale just a couple of years ago.

Der Spiegel, the popular German weekly magazine, reported that a new study at the Swiss research University of St. Gallen found that stockbrokers' behavior tops that of psychopaths when it comes to manipulation and recklessness. Psychopaths exhibit, among other characteristics, charm, dishonesty, callousness and a fondness for irresponsible behavior, according to a Scientific American article about the personality disorder. Certainly the loss of some $2.3 billion via trades that should never have been made matches up with a couple of those. They also feel little, if any, guilt and tend to blame others for what they have done.

The Swiss study's co-authors, forensic expert Pascal Scherrer and Thomas Noll, a lead administrator at the Pöschwies prison north of Zurich, compared the behavior of some 28 professional traders who took part in computer simulations and intelligence tests with the behavior of psychopaths who took the same test. Among the personality traits studied in the research were willingness to cooperate and egotism. The findings were quite remarkable.

Not only did traders outscore psychopaths in willingness to take chances, they were surprisingly eager to harm their opponents in the quest to come out on top. Noll said in the report, "Naturally one can't characterize the traders as deranged. But for example, they behaved more egotistically and were more willing to take risks than a group of psychopaths who took the same test." He added that, instead of simply pursuing the greatest gain possible, "it was most important to the traders to get more than their opponents. And they spent a lot of energy trying to damage their opponents."

Noll compared their behavior to people whose neighbors might have the same car, "and they took after it with a baseball bat so they could look better themselves." Neither he nor Scherrer were able to explain why they were so willing to cause damage in their quest to get ahead.

This is not the first time that traders have been studied by people in white coats. The Times reported on a 2005 study in the field of neuroeconomics claiming that they could be classed as “functioning psychopaths” whose lack of emotions, or better control of them, made them better able to take risks—some sensible, some not—and thus they were better performers in investing.

One caveat: A report in the Huffington Post also cited a study that said young male stockbrokers were also far more likely than the general population to experience major depression.

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