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.