WHITE MALES headed failed savings and loan institutions in numbers far greater than their proportion in the general population, according to a study released last week. The study also found that heading a failed thrift is linked to possessing a home and using multiple credit cards.

White males make up only 39.8 percent of the American population, yet they comprise fully 88 percent of the officers who drove savings and loans into bankruptcy, according to researchers from the SUGOB Institute for Research into Crime Origins. The research team says it is now looking for some cultural factor that would lead so many white men into this pattern of anti-social activity.

"We're looking into family dynamics here," says Fred R. Kighsquair, PhD, co-author of the study. "There may be some subtle pattern in white American child-rearing practices that is giving young white males the message that they can only win approval from their peer group by spending very large amounts of other people's money."

The institute's current research centers on possible pathology in the two-parent families where a majority of the savings and loan officers were raised. The presence of so many adults in these homes "may trigger feelings of inferiority in young white boys. The result may be dangerously low self-esteem, which leads them, when they grow up, to gamble with depositors' money in a desperate -- albeit ineffective -- attempt to feel better about themselves," says Kighsquair.

The vast majority of white males do not yield to the temptation to drive a savings and loan into bankruptcy, the research team cautions. "It would be inappropriate to construe this study in a manner that fuels prejudices against anyone, but where there is such a clear cultural pattern among one ethnic group, it warrants investigation," Kighsquair adds.

"There is an unfortunate streak of this kind of behavior in white males in the past," he says. "In the 19th century you had the robber barons. Carnegie, Rockefeller -- they were all white males."

The study also indicated that the officers of failed savings and loans were people who had homes (99.3 percent), at least at the time they headed a financial institution, and that they possessed three or more credit cards (92 percent).

"With numbers so overwhelming, we're convinced these may also be factors in a compulsive tendency to commit large-scale fraud," says Kighsquair.

The study hypothesizes that not having experienced homelessness, the S and L officers were unable to identify with the depositors and taxpayers who stood to lose when their institutions went under. "It may also be that as the cost of owning or renting a home rises, certain cultural groups with weaker ethical concepts and access to other people's assets just can't avoid temptation," says Kighsquair.

The link between possession of credit cards and driving thrift institutions into the ground is more mysterious, according to the study. Repeatedly being allowed to postpone paying for their personal purchases may affect some cultural groups more strongly than others.

"Unconsciously, some white males may come to believe they will never have to repay all the money they spend on lavish buildings, luxury vacations, faulty loans and junk bonds," says the study.

The investigators caution that these findings are preliminary but stress that the need for more research is urgent. "The savings-and-loan bailout is costing America's taxpayers $600 billion," says Kighsquair. "Maybe if we can find the pathology in the white male culture, we can intervene with preventive programs before the entire federal treasury collapses."

Judy MacLean is a free-lance writer in San Francisco.