Say It Ain’t So, Dan!

Many readers of this blog will recognize the name, Dan Ariely.

Dan is a world-renowned behavioral economist at Duke University and the best-selling author of several books on decision making. He also writes a biweekly column for the Wall Street Journal in which he answers readers’ questions. That column has been a frequent source of blog posts for me, likely totaling over 100 posts over the years.

But now Dan is in some hot water. A landmark study from 2012 in which Dan and his team found that people would be less likely to cheat and lie if they signed an honesty declaration at the top of a form before answering questions, is now being called into question regarding the data used for the study.

The 2012 study was eventually retracted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences after academics on the Data Colada research blog tried recreating the experiments in the study, only to find that there was no reduction in cheating and lying and that the main experiment was faked ‘beyond any shadow of a doubt.’

The study had been used by government agencies around the world, including the IRS, who chose to include an honesty declaration at the top of their forms and credited the method with helping to collect an additional $1.6 million from government vendors in the summer of 2015.

The study’s co-author, Max Bazerman, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, said he had raised concerns about inconsistent data during the original study, but Ariely allegedly assured him and everyone else working on the study that the odd findings were correct.

The three other authors who worked on the study expressed similar concerns and said they played no part in collecting the data, which all went through Ariely.

Ariely confirmed that he alone was in touch with the insurance company that ran the test with its customers and alleged that the unnamed insurance company was responsible for the fake data, BuzzFeed News reports.

‘I can see why it is tempting to think that I had something to do with creating the data in a fraudulent way,’ he said claiming his innocence. ‘I can see why it would be tempting to jump to that conclusion, but I didn’t.’ He added, ‘If I knew that the data was fraudulent, I would have never posted it.’

Aaron Charlton, a marketing professor at Illinois State University who went over the study, claimed Ariely’s statement that the insurance company was at fault did not make any sense. ‘Why on earth would an insurance company fabricate data in such a way as to support Dan Ariely’s hypothesis,’ Charlton wrote on his website.

Duke’s Office of Research Integrity is examining the allegations. Ariely notes that he “fully supports this effort and am grateful for their guidance in developing appropriate regulatory oversight, data management and document retention procedures for the future.”

I certainly hope that there is a reasonable explanation for the data issue. To think that Dan fabricated data would be crushing to me, since I’ve always been a big fan of his work.

I hope that it does not turn out to be ironic that one of Dan’s books is titled: The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, with an even more ironic subtite: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves

I just hope that if more of his research is found to be problematic that it doesn’t impact my blogging streak. Would I have to retract all those posts that featured his research? Would that end my streak?

As usual, I’m only able to think of things in terms of how it affects me…


52 thoughts on “Say It Ain’t So, Dan!

  1. Why fake the data on a study anyway? I find it fascinating that when people sign an honesty declaration, they’re just as inclined to be dishonest. We can learn a lot from that.

    I myself believe in honesty, and promise that I will never lie or deceive anyone in any comment I make on anybody’s blog. I hope that leaves you feeling reassured.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Jim, it is really weird. Why would Dan fudge the data. What did he have to gain? It will all come out if he did and it will be very interesting to know why if that is the case. It is disappointing when people we admire fall from grace. It can be crushing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s crushing when someone we respect deceives us. While I have no idea about what happened in this case, I hope for your sake it turns out that there is some reasonable explanation. I’ve had people I’ve looked up to and admired make terrible decisions that made me lose respect for them. I am not impressed by money, and I want to live in a world where one’s character still matters.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I want to find a reason why this is not Dan’s fault. That would simply make me feel better for having eagerly consumed his theories on behavior. But we are left with two possible culprits. The insurance company that provided the data and Dan who published it to great fanfare. I am having a really hard time finding the risk/benefit outcome for the insurance company to provide erroneous data and I just can’t get there. While for Dan, that answer is much more quickly forthcoming. Dan may have had much more of a desire for dollars and cents than scholars and sense! A sad day it is.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. If one of the sources for that was the Daily Mail you can probably disregard it – that rag has a long history of misreporting and making up its ‘facts.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was hesitatnt to use that as one of my sources, but it seemed to match up with other reports I had read, and I just thought it did the best job of highlighting the issues.

      It doesn’t look good for Dan…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Of all things to lie about. He had to know that was going to blow up in his face eventually. I hope the investigation proves otherwise, but I’m skeptical at this point.

    This reminds me of “don’t meet your heroes.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Irrespective of the study, it stands to reason that signing a declaration would have little effect on someone’s honesty on a form. Just look at Congress and our last president who all take solemn oaths to defend the Constitution. Isn’t it possible though that Dan’s data and conclusion wasn’t intentionally falsified? I always think the results of studies can be influenced by many factors. I’m not surprised that two studies could produce different results. I don’t put a lot of stock in considering the results of such studies as necessarily proving anything. Another person could perform a study of the same thing and come up with different results. In court, expert witnesses with fairly equal education, training and experience often reach totally opposite conclusions. It doesn’t look good for Dan, but …

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think part of the issue was that the data looks like it was manipulated based on statistical analysis.

      I also know at our school we have an honesty deeclaration as a cover sheet to our tests that students have to sign. Despite that, there are some students who disregard such a form.

      And great example of the expert witnesses – what’s a jury to do?!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Like everyone else has said, it doesn’t look like the odds are in his favor, but ….
    It is sad when people we look up to let us down like this, but whether or not he was being dishonest doesn’t reflect badly on your blog posts of him at all! You were being honest with what you knew!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Studies can be very subjective depending on who is reading them…maybe as someone said, the dollars signs were to big a distraction always sad when someone so learned is caught out as it leaves so many people disappointed and doubting so much more…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. some research studies don’t have much validity right from the get go, but when a respected researcher like Dan gets accused of such behavior, then it is more troubling and disappointing…

      Liked by 1 person

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