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Study co-author: 'Completely convinced' data was incorrect

Claims swirl around academic Ariely after honesty study found to be dishonest

Landmark research adopted by governments and insurance companies is found to be based on falsified data; Israeli-American researcher denies knowing the information was faked

Duke University Professor Dan Ariely headed the Dishonesty Project, which scientifically proved that yes, we all lie. (Courtesy)
Duke University Professor Dan Ariely headed the Dishonesty Project (Courtesy)

Israeli-American academic Dan Ariely is under renewed scrutiny for his role in research found to be based on falsified data.

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

The original research, of which Ariely was a co-author, was published in 2012 and claimed 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.

According to Buzzfeed News, the study is 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.”

Illustrative — this Feb. 13, 2019 file photo shows part of a 1040 federal tax form printed from the Internal Revenue Service website (Associated Press)

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.

The original study’s researchers agreed that the data did indeed appear to be falsified and have asked that it be retracted, Buzzfeed reported, noting that it still had not been announced who faked the data or why they did it.

Four of the five authors said they played no part in collecting the data for that particular test, the outlet said, leaving just Ariely, who said he was the point person in contact with the insurance company that collected the statistics.

In a statement to Buzzfeed, Ariely implied that the data had been falsified before it was submitted to him.

“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. “I can see why it would be tempting to jump to that conclusion, but I didn’t.”

“If I knew that the data was fraudulent, I would have never posted it,” he said.

However, Buzzfeed said Ariely “gave conflicting answers about the origins of the data file that was the basis for the analysis. Citing confidentiality agreements, he also declined to name the insurer that he partnered with. And he said that all his contacts at the insurer had left and that none of them remembered what happened, either.”

Ariely also did not explain why it would be in the insurance company’s interests to submit falsified data.

One of the original study’s co-authors, Max Bazerman, a professor at Harvard Business School, said in a statement published on the same blog that highlighted the falsified data, Data Colada, that he was “completely convinced” by the analysis of the three academics.

“I wish I had worked harder to identify the data were fraudulent, to ensure rigorous research in a collaborative context, and to promptly retract the 2012 paper. While I had doubts and raised questions, I believed the responses I received. We reported our failure to replicate the 2012 finding, but I should have argued more forcefully to retract the paper sooner,” Bazerman wrote.

Max Bazerman of Harvard Business School in a video uploaded on Sep 15, 2015 (YouTube)

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.

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.

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