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The Harvard Expert on Dishonesty Is Accused of Lying

Updated at 3:05 p.m. on July 7, 2023

When behavioral-science researchers are accused of misbehavior, the allegations have a funny way of being a little on the nose. The former Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser, author of Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong, was found to have fabricated data and manipulated results. The University of Michigan psychologist Lawrence Sanna, who studied judgment and decision making, resigned after facing similar allegations. Diederik Stapel, a Dutch social psychologist whose work touched on such topics as selfishness and morality, fabricated data at least 50 times, making him “perhaps the biggest con man in academic science.” And last month, Francesca Gino, a Harvard Business School professor who studies dishonesty–and who wrote a book titled Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life–was accused of falsifying data in at least four papers, three of which are on their way to being retracted. Her accusers now suggest that Gino, who has been placed on administrative leave from Harvard, may have faked data in dozens of her other published papers.

When I emailed Gino for comment, she referred me to a recent LinkedIn post. “As I continue to evaluate these allegations and assess my options, I am limited into what I can say publicly,” it says. “I want to assure you that I take them seriously and they will be addressed.” (Hauser, for his part, neither confirmed nor denied wrongdoing; Sanna has not commented on his alleged misconduct.) The obvious irony of Gino’s situation makes for a punchy headline–“Dishonesty Researcher Accused of Dishonesty”–but it also speaks to a vexing paradox of human behavior, one that Gino has herself returned to again and again in her academic work. “Researchers across disciplines have become increasingly interested,” she wrote in a 2014 paper, “in understanding why even people who care about morality predictably cross ethical boundaries.” Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that she is such a person–someone who cares about doing right but, at some point, for some reason, started doing wrong. If so, then what would Francesco Gino’s contested science say about Francesca Gino?

Gino has published well over 100 academic articles on a wide range of topics, but much of her research circles back to this essential question: Why do normal people lie and cheat? Many of her studies work like this: A bunch of college students complete a simple task (for example, forming as many Scrabble words as possible from sets of seven letters), self-report results, and receive rewards based on their performance. Through a series of such experiments, Gino and her colleagues have tried to show how rates of cheating will increase in response to subtle social factors. In one paper, for example, they suggest that people are more likely to break the rules for a task after being asked to exercise their self-control while doing something unrelated. Another paper, called “Dishonesty in the Name of Equity,” says that students tend to fudge results in a way that harms people who have just been given money and helps people who have not. In a third, they observe that merely being in the “presence of abundant wealth“–$7,000 in small bills, strewn across a table like the loot from a disappointing bank heist–makes people more likely to cheat.

Was Gino herself subject to any of these supposedly dishonesty-enhancing effects? She was certainly in the presence of abundant wealth: She regularly taught classes for business executives, and some among her colleagues at Harvard Business School make nearly $2 million in annual salary. But another of her findings, from the most cited paper on which she is listed as first author, seems most relevant. According to that study, subtitled “The Effect of One Bad Apple on the Barrel,” students who were exposed to compatriots’ cheating were more likely to end up cheating themselves. In other words, lying is contagious. And Gino’s work, if taken at face value, would have given her years of heavy exposure. In the course of doing that research, she made a point of surrounding herself with ordinary-seeming people who would end up doing wrong. “The evidence from such studies paints a troubling picture of human nature,” she and a colleague wrote in a 2012 book chapter titled “Honest Rationales for Dishonest Behavior.” Lots of people cheat, they argue, while maintaining the belief that they remain good and honest people. One way to resolve this “ethical dissonance,” as they call it, is by comparing your own misbehavior with that of others. Gino would have had ample opportunity to do just that.

Another strand of Gino’s research shows how, for individuals, one dishonest act tends to follow from another. In Rebel Talent, she writes about “a self-perpetuating cycle of power and rule breaking that can go too far.” In a 2010 study titled “The Counterfeit Self,” Gino and her frequent co-author Dan Ariely (who has also been accused of faking data, a charge that he denies), found that wearing $300 Chloe sunglasses and being told that they’re knock-offs made people more likely to cheat on a test. “In short,” the paper concludes, “we suspect that feeling like a fraud makes people more likely to commit fraud.” You can see how all these corrupting influences might add up.

Elsewhere Gino posits a mutually reinforcing relationship between creativity and dishonesty. The two behaviors, she says, are sides of the same coin. Both are types of rule-breaking. When in the subtitle of Rebel Talent she writes that it “pays to break the rules at work and in life,” she is referring to the former kind of rule-breaking, the creative kind, the ethical kind. But her research findings seem to show that the one can easily bleed into the other: “A creative personality and a creative mindset promote individuals’ ability to justify their behavior,” she and Ariely wrote, “which, in turn, leads to unethical behavior.” In a strange way, her alleged fraud would serve to both undermine and validate that work. Undermine because, well, fraud. And validate because she could be just the sort of rule-breaking creative–just the “rebel talent”–who she and Ariely suggest is especially susceptible to dishonesty.

Indeed, one of Gino’s papers that makes this very argument–title: “Evil Genius? How Dishonesty Can Lead to Greater Creativity“–was among the group in which other researchers found evidence of data tampering. When the allegedly doctored data are discounted, the effect vanishes. This is the real irony, then: We can’t trust the research that could in theory help explain the alleged misconduct, because it might be corrupted by that same alleged misconduct.

Last fall, after concerns about Gino’s work had already been transmitted to Harvard Business School, but before the allegations were made public, Gino co-authored a fictionalized Harvard Business Review case study titled “What’s the Right Career Move After a Public Failure?” In it, a businesswoman is fired from her post as CEO of an American fitness company. She’s so ashamed, she can’t bring herself to attend her 25th business-school reunion. She gets a pep talk from her father, who reassures her, as he always does, and then she confesses to her daughter that she’s been placed on a “forced sabbatical.”

The story is loosely based on the experience of a real-life fitness CEO named Sarah Robb O’Hagan, but the fictional protagonist sure sounds a lot like Francesca Gino, right down to the prosody of her name (“Mariani Kallis”), her status as a Mediterranean ?migr? (albeit from Greece rather than Italy), and the fact that both have children named Olivia. Although the case study depicts the tortured inner life of that character in great detail–“She dreaded having to explain her unceremonious exit from what she thought was her dream job”–it never gets around to answering the question posed by the title. It is, after all, a case study; the whole point is for students to figure that out themselves. But Gino’s book, which dwells at length on the long-term dangers of “faking it,” offers what may be construed as a guiding thought, in an epigraph from The Scarlet Letter: “No one man can, for any considerable time, wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude,” it says, “without finally getting bewildered as to which is the true one.”

The original text misidentified Lawrence Sanna’s university affiliation.

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