Ethics Unwrapped focuses significantly on behavioral ethics, the science of moral decision-making. The science of behavioral ethics is only as solid as the work of the scientists who research in the field, and last month behavioral ethics was dealt a blow when one of the field’s stars, Francesca Gino of the Harvard Business School, was accused of academic dishonesty in at least four papers and quite possibly more.
Gino is a superstar in behavioral psychology with business applications. She has, in a relatively brief career, published more than 125 academic articles and additional books dealing with management, negotiation, leadership, workplace practices, and, significantly, ethical decision-making. Her productivity has been astonishing if not unbelievable. This, perhaps, should have been a warning sign.
On June 17, 2023, three researchers (Uri Simonsohn of ESADE Business School, Leif Nelson of Cal-Berkeley, and Joseph Simmons of the University of Pennsylvania)–who run a blog called DataColada–posted a critique of Gino’s contribution to an already-controversial and previously retracted article that had concluded that people asked to pledge that they have honestly filled out a document like a tax form or an expense report are more likely to tell the truth if they sign the pledge before they fill out the document than if they sign the pledge afterward. Although this seems to make common sense and was supported by three separate studies performed independently by different authors and then included in the article, it now turns out that two of the three studies on (ironically) honesty may have been bogus. Professor Dan Ariely’s contribution to the article was a study based on data supposedly acquired from an auto insurance company. That data appears to have been unreliable. Ariely denies wrongdoing and no other co-author is suspected of having anything to do with the study, but all agreed to retract the article and Ariely remains under a cloud of suspicion for that study
Now the professors at DataColada have produced persuasive evidence that Gino fiddled with the data her study produced in order to change an insignificant result to a significant result. Gino denies wrongdoing, but Harvard has placed her on administrative leave and the DataColada researchers have now produced evidence that Gino cheated similarly in at least three other studies and perhaps many more than that. It appears at this writing that at least four of Gino’s studies will be retracted (including the article with Ariely which has already been retracted).
At this writing, it is too early to know how this controversy will play out. Gino is not making any public statements. But it doesn’t look good for her academic career.
Philosophy professor Eric Schwitzgebel has provided evidence that philosophers who specialize in ethics do not actually live more ethical lives than others, as measured by such things as how many books they steal from libraries, how often they fail to pay their conference fees, etc.
We now have a couple of data points (Gino and Ariely) indicating that behavioral ethicists may fall short of ideal ethical behavior as well. Two is not a lot out of the scores, if not hundreds, of academics who research in this area, but it is not encouraging.
Nor should it be surprising. The psychological forces (such as obedience to authority, the conformity bias, the self-serving bias, framing, incrementalism, and all the rest that are the subjects of many of our Ethics Unwrapped videos) impact the best people we know. Indeed, they influence all the people we know. Looking back through our blog posts, it is clear that social and organizational pressures, cognitive biases and heuristics, and various other forces impact the moral decision-making of philosophers and psychologists, priests and rabbis, actors and athletes, politicians all across the political spectrum…and everyone else. Researchers studying ethics will not be immune.
The hope of behavioral ethicists everywhere is that learning about the psychological forces that can lead people to make poor ethical choices can give individuals the tools they need to more successfully guard against these forces and thereby lead improved ethical lives. No one expects perfection, but improvement would be nice. It may now fall to “nudge” experts such as Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler, his co-author Cass Sunstein, UT-Austin’s own David Yeager and Chris Bryan, and others to apply the principles of behavioral ethics in order to formulate the best “nudges” to move people’s moral decision making in a positive direction.
Although Gino’s apparent wrongdoing gives behavioral ethics a black eye, it scarcely invalidates decades of research in the field. For example, obedience to authority is still, undeniably, “a thing.” It often negatively and concretely impacts people’s moral decision-making. The same may be said of the conformity bias, the self-serving bias, incrementalism, and the other social and psychological forces that are the subjects of many of our videos. We see evidence of this in years of research, in our own lives, in the reports from our students after they leave campus, in books like Eugene Soltes’s Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of the White Collar Criminal and articles like Ikseon Suh and colleagues’ “Boiling the Frog Slowly: The Immersion of C-Suite Financial Executives into Fraud,” and in confessionals by wrongdoers such as Tim Miller’s Why We Did It and Derek Delgaudio’s Amoralman.
We don’t wish to prejudge the case against Francesca Gino. She may have an innocent explanation for the research anomalies isolated by the gang at DataColada. Or, she may be yet another in a long line of good people doing bad things for reasons best explained by behavioral ethics research, however imperfect.
Derek Delgaudio, Amoralman: A True Story and Other Lies (2021).
Tim Miller, Why We Did It (2022).
Eric Schwitzgebel, “Are Ethicists Any More Likely to Pay Their Registration Fees at Professional Conferences?” Economics & Philosophy 29: 371-389 (2013).
Eric Schwitzgebel, “Do Ethicists Steal More Books?” Philosophical Psychology 22(6): 711-725 (2009).
Lisa L. Shu, Nina Mazar, Francesca Gino, Dan Ariely, and Max H. Bazerman, “Signing at the Beginning Makes Ethics Salient and Decreases Dishonest Self-reports in Comparison to Signing at the End,” PNAS 109: 15197-15200 (2012) [Retracted 2021].
Ikseon Suh et al., “Boiling the Frog Slowly: The Immersion of C-Suite Financial Executives into Fraud,” Journal of Business Ethics (2018).
Cass Sunstein & Richard Thaler, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2008).
Conformity Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias.
Introduction to Behavioral Ethics: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/intro-to-behavioral-ethics.
Obedience to Authority: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/obedience-to-authority .