I Trusted The Science, And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt!

Idiot T-Shirt

For more than a decade, I told incoming members of the D.C. Bar as part of their mandatory ethics training that such sessions as mine were essential to making their ethics alarms ring. To support that thesis, I related the finding of research performed by behavioral economist Dan Ariely when he was at M.I.T. Ariely created an experiment that was the most publicized part of his best-selling book “Predictably Irrational,” giving Harvard Business School students a test that had an obvious way to cheat built into it and offering a cash reward for the students who got the highest scores. He tracked how many students, with that incentive to be unethical, cheated. He also varied the experiment by asking some students to do simple tasks before they took the test: name five baseball teams, or state capitals, or U.S. Presidents.

None of these pre-test questions had any effect on the students’ likelihood of cheating, except for one question, which had a dramatic effect.  He discovered that students who were asked to recite a few of the Ten Commandments, unlike any of the other groups, never cheated at all. Never. None of them. Ariely told an NPR interviewer that he had periodically repeated the experiment elsewhere, with the same results. No individual who was asked to search his memory for a few of the Ten Commandments has ever cheated on Ariely’s test, though the percentage of cheaters among the rest of the testees is consistently in double figures. This result has held true, he said, regardless of the individual’s faith, ethnic background, or even whether they could name one Commandment correctly.

The classic moral rules, he concluded, reminded the students to consider right and wrong. It wasn’t the content of the Commandments that affected them, but what they represent: being good, or one culture’s formula for doing good. The phenomenon is called priming, and Ariely’s research eventually made me decide to start “The Ethics Scoreboard” and later this ethics blog.

Priming is a superb way to make sure your ethics alarms are turned on and in working order. All of us go through life focused on what ethicist call “non-ethical considerations,” the human motivations, emotions, needs and desires that drive us in everything they do—love, lust, greed, ambition, fear, ego, anger, passion…wanting that promotion, the new car, the compliment, fame, power. Good people do bad things because at the moment they are unethical, they aren’t thinking about ethics. If they were, they wouldn’t engage in the misconduct, because they would be “primed” and their ethics alarms would sound in time to stop them.

I still believe that the priming theory is sound, but it looks like Ariely’s alleged proof of the phenomenon can’t be trusted, because he can’t be trusted. Last week, an in-depth statistical analysis showed that a data set from one of the professor’s 2012 papers was fraudulent. That study had apparently demonstrated that people were more honest about how much mileage on their car if they had to sign a statement pledging that the number was accurate before they reported the mileage, rather than signing at the bottom of the page. Oops! No such study had ever been done,, and the “data” was produced using a random number generator.

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Dan Ariely: Without Ethics, We Are Governed By Psychological Enablers of Cheating and Worse

And it’s nothing to be proud of.

Duke behavioral scientist (or, as he likes to call himself, “behavioral economist”) Dan Ariely, has a new book out. This is a boon for my ethics classes, since I’m sure they are getting a little sick of me quoting the last one, “Predictably Irrational.” His new best seller is “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty,” and Ariely has been making the rounds of NPR and various publications promoting it. Like Malcolm Gladwell (“The Tipping Point”), Ariely writes provocative and easily digested books that seemed to be designed to make you skip the movie on airplane flights; they are not deep, but they are helpful, at promoting self-understanding if nothing else.

I’ve been saving my copy of “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty” for my next trip, but the most valuable thing about it from my perspective is that it validates the importance of developing the skills of ethical analysis. As the author explained in a recent interview, when most human beings ( Ariely pegs the percentage at a depressing 98%—and one of the two missing percentage points are people who cheat no matter what! ) human beings let their gut determine whether they are going to cheat or not, they will make their choice according to a potpourri of rationalizions and quirky psychological factors that have little to do with right and wrong.

Among the useful observations he made in his recent interview with journalist Gary Belsky: Continue reading

A Shocking Farewell Confession From “The Ethicist”

In Randy Cohen’s farewell column for “The Ethicist” today—he was sacked by the new editor of The New York Times despite providing an entertaining, well-written and provocative column for many years— he makes a statement that I find shocking, and one that challenges the core assumption of this blog and indeed my occupation.

Writing the column has not made me even slightly more virtuous. And I didn’t have to be: it was in my contract. O.K., it wasn’t. But it should have been. I wasn’t hired to personify virtue, to be a role model for the kids, but to write about virtue in a way readers might find engaging. Consider sports writers: not 2 in 20 can hit the curveball, and why should they? They’re meant to report on athletes, not be athletes. And that’s the self-serving rationalization I’d have clung to had the cops hauled me off in handcuffs.
What spending my workday thinking about ethics did do was make me acutely conscious of my own transgressions, of the times I fell short. It is deeply demoralizing.

Amazing. Randy, we hardly knew ye, and we sure didn’t understand ye, either. How can someone possibly spend one’s working day “thinking about ethics” and not become more virtuous in his daily conduct? Continue reading

The Troubling Ethics of Human Psychological Experimentation

Thanks to the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell’s airport book store best-sellers and many of those who cashed in on his formula, like behavioral economist Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational), psychological experiments are increasingly referenced in the media and the blogosphere, not to mention at the dinner table, more than ever before. Call me an alarmist if you like, but this makes me worry about the reckless, harmful and even diabolical experiments being dreamed up by the next wave of aspiring authors and the researchers who give them their best material. Continue reading

NPR Shows How Bad Opinions Get Made

Dan Ariely is a behavioral economist at Duke University who struck gold with his Malcolm Gladwell-esque airplane book, Predictably Irrational. The book discussed his work in human behavior and how apparently irrelevant or minor factors affect our behaviors in significant and surprising  ways. I like the book, and I like Professor Ariely, but I now suspect him of using the American public as his guinea pigs for Best Seller #2,  and of rigging the experiments in the process. Continue reading

Ben Franklin’s Ethics Alarms

Why do good people do bad things? Usually it’s because they aren’t thinking about good and bad at all. They are thinking about more immediate issues, like getting through the day, keeping a job, making a child happy, paying the bills, enduring a crisis. When good people—most of us, I believe–actually focus on doing the right thing, doing good, they tend to do it. The trick is  focusing, when emotions and basic human needs are so powerful. Continue reading