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Two behavioral science superstars who studied dishonesty are accused of fabricating data

Even if you don’t know Dan Ariely of Duke and Francesca Gino of Harvard, you may know their groundbreaking research. It’s about nudging people to be more honest on forms they fill out. But in the past few months, Ariely and Gino are separately accused of fabricating data for their research, leading to questions “whether their research into honesty was itself built on lies,” according to NPR.

Their most famous collaboration was a 2012 paper showing that when people attest to their honesty at the top of a form instead of the bottom, they respond more honestly.

But the Hartford insurance company, from which Ariely collected data for the paper, told NPR the published data “was manipulated inappropriately and supplemented by synthesized or fabricated data.”

Ariely denies fabricating or manipulating the Hartford data. “Getting the data file was the extent of my involvement with the data,” he told NPR.

The 2012 paper relied on three studies, including one each from Ariely and Gino. It’s been cited hundreds of times in other papers and academic journals and referred to often in the popular press.

In June this year, in a blog called Data Colada, three other behavioral scientists posted what they allege is evidence that Professor Gino’s data for several papers, including the 2012 paper, was falsified.

After a Harvard Business School investigation committee determined that “research misconduct had occurred, Business School Dean Srikant M. Datar placed Gino on unpaid administrative leave, barred her from campus, and revoked her named professorship,” the Harvard Crimson said.

Publishers have retracted four of Professor Gino’s papers, including her 2012 collaboration with Ariely.

She has sued Harvard University and the authors of the Data Colada posts for $25 million, alleging defamation. She also alleges misconduct in the way Harvard has conducted its review.

She said, “I want to be very clear: I have never, ever falsified data or engaged in research misconduct of any kind.”

She launched a website in late September where she makes her defense.

Professor Ariely has written several bestselling books, including The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves and Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. His TED Talks have been viewed more than 20 million times.

Among the 25 articles he has published in the Harvard Business Review, one of the best known is from 2008, “How Honest People Cheat.”

In the 2008 article, Ariely (who was then teaching at MIT) said he assembled a team and performed “scientifically controlled experiments” at Harvard Business School, MIT, Princeton, UCLA, and Yale. The team gave participants 20 math problems to solve in five minutes, and they paid 50 cents for each correct answer.

In control groups where Professor Ariely and his team checked results, participants answered an average of four problems correctly. In experimental groups, participants were allowed to report correct answers without anyone else verifying the results. On average, they claimed to have answered six problems correctly, Ariely said.

Others have had trouble replicating some of Ariely’s and Gino’s research results.

The replication problem is widespread in behavioral science. It’s one reason no one can say for sure how much published research data is fabricated or manipulated.

As the New York Times said in June, “In 2015, a team of scholars reported that they had tried to replicate the results of 100 studies published in prominent psychology journals and succeeded in fewer than half the cases. The behavioral studies proved especially hard to replicate.”

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