Monday, May 20, 2013

On Word Choice, Logical Conclusions, and Not Being a Cheater

I've blogged about scientific misconduct, specifically falsifying and fabricating data before, so I don't intend on touching upon the effect this behavior has on our field or those trying to make a name for themselves honestly.

However, this topic came back to me recently as I was completing an ethics form for an APA journal. Near the bottom of the form, I found this statement: 8.10 Reporting Research Results: (a) Psychologists do not fabricate data.

I found the word choice interesting: "do not". It is not prescriptive, as in "Psychologists should not fabricate data" or "Psychologists are prohibited from fabricating data." Rather, it is descriptive. Psychologists don't do this.

Which resulted in my pithy Facebook status update:

For today's episode of fun with logic - As I was completing an ethics form for a journal submission, I stumbled upon this statement: 8.10 Reporting Research Results: (a) Psychologists do not fabricate data.
Conclusion: Researchers who falsify data are not psychologists. 
Impact: We get to disown Diederik Stapel, Marc Hauser, and any other psychological researcher who falsified data. 

But interesting word choice aside, perhaps this statement is intended to do something else. Research has identified that one way to stop cheating is through word choice. "Cheating" is a behavior, while "cheater" is an identity. Bryan, Adams, and Monin (2012) found that telling people not to be a cheater has a strong, positive influence on their behavior when they were placed in a situation conducive to cheating, than if they were simply told not to cheat. That is, the possibility of being considered "a cheater" made them more honest than the possibility of being considered "someone who cheated."

So perhaps by wording the document as descriptive, they were capitalizing on the identity of "psychologist", and prescribing what this identity means - i.e., they do not fabricate data. This approach may be stronger than telling them they "should not" do this or "are prohibited from" doing this.

If that's the case, however, why then do we have highly publicized instances of psychologists doing the very thing they have been told they do not do - fabricating data? Perhaps being told "not to be a liar" would be a stronger disincentive. Or perhaps Bryan and colleagues' study simply does not mirror this real-life situation well enough: where the incentives to rise up in the psychological research world are so great and have such long-term consequences - on future success with obtaining grants, tenure, job prospects, and overall prestige - that they lead these individuals to overlook the consequences of being caught - that everything they worked for would be taken away and even research results obtained honestly would be scrutinized and cast off. In gambling terms, it is the possibility of becoming rich if you win, and becoming completely broke and unemployed if you lose. True, participants in the Bryan et al. study had the opportunity to win money, and would receive more money by cheating than by being honest, but $5-$10 is a poor stand-in for concepts like job security, and opportunity for advancement. Further, they didn't lose anything and there was no possibility of or consequences for "being caught".

What do you think? Would this notion of identity apply in situations where the incentives are so much greater? Or do researchers who fabricate data simply accept "cheater" as part of their greater identity of "successful"?

Bryan, C. J., Adams, G. S., & Monin, B. (2012, November 5). When cheating would make you a cheater: Implicating the self prevents unethical behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030655

No comments:

Post a Comment