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Behavioral researcher says he ‘undoubtedly made a mistake’ in false data scandal

Dan Ariely insists his actions were innocent, defends other controversial moves, believes his reputation will recover

Prof. Dan Ariely (Channel 12 screenshot)
Prof. Dan Ariely (Channel 12 screenshot)

Israeli-American celebrity academic Dan Ariely has said he “undoubtedly made a mistake” in a famous study of his that has been revealed as based on falsified data.

In an interview with Channel 12 Friday, Ariely denied responsibility for the forgery and expressed belief that his reputation would recover from a recent slew of problematic revelations.

Ariely is a Duke University professor of psychology and behavioral economics and author of best-selling books including “The Honest Truth about Dishonesty.”

Recently several of Ariely’s studies, as well as his methods, have come under question. Chief among the problematic revelations was a 2012 study of which Ariely was a co-author. It found that if a declaration of honesty appeared at the beginning of a form before crucial information had to be submitted, rather than in its usual position at the end, people were less likely to lie.

The study was used by governments and insurance companies around the world that adapted their processes for declaration forms, with some saying it had enabled them to collect increased revenues.

But it is now set to be retracted after scientists found it relied on falsified data.

Three academics not involved in the original study examined the data and wrote in a blog post that they found that one of the main experiments in the study was faked “beyond any shadow of a doubt.” The academics said there were three possible sources for the faked information: Ariely, someone working in Ariely’s lab or someone at the insurance company that provided the data (though it is not clear what motive the company would have to do so).

Ariely has since acknowledged the data was false, but said he used it innocently. “If I knew that the data was fraudulent, I would have never posted it,” he told Buzzfeed.

Prof. Dan Ariely (courtesy)

To Channel 12, he said the revelation that the study was worthless “was very sad for me personally. Making a mistake is not good for me, my colleagues, the world of research. I undoubtedly made a mistake here.

“I did not look deeply enough into the data and ended up producing academic research that isn’t worth anything and should of course be excised from the literature.”

In a 2020 blog post, Ariely and his co-authors admitted that when they tried to reproduce their research, they in fact refuted their conclusions.

And in a follow-up paper, also published in 2020, under the title “Signing at the beginning versus at the end does not decrease dishonesty,” the researchers admitted a number of studies were unable to replicate the original research.

“Sometimes mistakes happen innocently in research,” he told Channel 12. “You can take one mistake and say ‘this shows that everything is worthless,’ or you can look at my body of work and say ‘Sometimes unfortunate, bad, grave mistakes happen, and you need to see what you learn from that and move forward.'”

It has also come to light that Ariely was suspended from MIT and eventually left the institute after he conducted an experiment using electric shocks without proper approval from the ethics committee.

“I generally don’t like breaking rules,” he told Channel 12. “We had a disagreement. I thought they approved it, they said they’d sent another letter with more questions. I don’t remember getting that letter… they suspended me for a year. It wasn’t fun but I found other things to do, and three years later I left.”

An anonymous member of the research team has expressed doubt in such explanations, telling HaMakom last month: “Ariely likes to cut corners, and he doesn’t think he has to follow the same rules as everyone else. He didn’t think he’d get caught.”

The row over the honesty study is not the first time Ariely has been involved in controversy. In a 2010 interview on NPR he cited data from a dental company that the company said had not been collected and did not exist. The network later said that “Ariely’s unsubstantiated assertion unfairly hurt the reputation of many honest dentists and planted a seed of distrust with patients.”

A number of Ariely’s other studies have also come under scrutiny, with external researchers later unable to replicate the results.

“It’s not that I’ve never made mistakes,” Ariely told Channel 12. Let’s say people make mistakes in a tenth of a percent of cases — if you do four things, the odds you’ll make a mistake are lower. If you do more, there might be more mistakes.”

The researcher acknowledged that due to the swirling controversy, “I think my academic reputation will take a hit. But I have patience and I believe my studies speak for themselves… five years from now more good studies we do will come out and people will scrutinize the details and see they’re fine, and we’ll continue moving forward.”

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