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Harvard scholar who studies honesty is accused of fabricating findings

Behavioural work is common in psychology, management and economics, and scholars can straddle these disciplines

Noam Scheiber New York Published 26.06.23, 04:23 AM
Harvard Business School.

Harvard Business School. File photo

Over the past two decades, dozens of behavioural scientists have risen to prominence pointing out the power of small interventions to improve well-being.

The scientists said they had found that automatically enrolling people in organ donor programmes would lead to higher rates of donation, and that moving healthy foods like fruit closer to the front of a buffet line would result in healthier eating.


Many of these findings have attracted scepticism as other scholars showed that their effects were smaller than initially claimed, or that they had little impact at all. But in recent days, the field may have sustained its most serious blow yet: accusations that a prominent behavioural scientist fabricated results in multiple studies, including at least one purporting to show how to elicit honest behaviour.

The scholar, Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School, has been a co-author of dozens of papers in peer-reviewed journals on such topics as how rituals like silently counting to 10 before deciding what to eat can increase the likelihood of choosing healthier food, and how networking can make professionals feel dirty.

Maurice Schweitzer, a behavioural scientist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said the accusations were having large “reverberations in the academic community” because Gino is someone who has “so many collaborators, so many articles, who is really a leading scholar in the field”.

Schweitzer said that he was now going through the eight papers on which he collaborated with Gino for indications of fraud, and that many other scholars were doing so as well.

Behavioural work is common in psychology, management and economics, and scholars can straddle these disciplines. According to her resume, Gino has a PhD in economics and management from an Italian university.

Questions about her work surfaced in an article on June 16 in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a 2012 paper written by Gino and four colleagues. One of Gino’s co-authors — Max H. Bazerman, also of Harvard Business School — told The Chronicle that the university had informed him that a study overseen by Gino for the paper appeared to include fabricated results.

The 2012 paper reported that asking people who fill out tax or insurance documents to attest to the truth of their responses at the top of the document rather than at the bottom significantly increased the accuracy of the information they provided. The paper has been cited hundreds of times by other scholars, but more recent work had cast serious doubt on its findings.

Gino did not respond to a request for comment, and Harvard Business School declined to comment. Reached by phone, a man who identified himself as Gino’s husband said “It’s obviously something that is very sensitive that we can’t speak to now.”

Bazerman did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

New York Times News Service

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