Harvard fraud claims fuel doubts over science of behaviour

Article by Andrew Hill and Andrew Jack: “Claims that fraudulent data was used in papers co-authored by a star Harvard Business School ethics expert have fuelled a growing controversy about the validity of behavioural science, whose findings are routinely taught in business schools and applied within companies.

While the professor has not yet responded to details of the claims, the episode is the latest blow to a field that has risen to prominence over the past 15 years and whose findings in areas such as decision-making and team-building are widely put into practice.

Companies from Coca-Cola to JPMorgan Chase have executives dedicated to behavioural science, while governments around the world have also embraced its findings. But well-known principles in the field such as “nudge theory” are now being called into question.

The Harvard episode “is topic number one in business school circles”, said André Spicer, executive dean of London’s Bayes Business School. “There has been a large-scale replication crisis in psychology — lots of the results can’t be reproduced and some of the underlying data has found to be faked.”…

That cast a shadow over the use of behavioural science by government-linked “nudge units” such as the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, which was spun off into a company in 2014, and the US Office of Evaluation Sciences.

However, David Halpern, now president of BIT, countered that publication bias is not unique to the field. He said he and his peers use far larger-scale, more representative and robust testing than academic research.

Halpern argued that behavioural research can help to effectively deploy government budgets. “The dirty secret of most governments and organisations is that they spend a lot of money, but have no idea if they are spending in ways that make things better.”

Academics point out that testing others’ results is part of normal scientific practice. The difference with behavioural science is that initial results that have not yet been replicated are often quickly recycled into sensational headlines, popular self-help books and business practice.

“Scientists should be better at pointing out when non-scientists over-exaggerate these things and extrapolate, but they are worried that if they do this they will ruin the positive trend [towards their field],” said Pelle Guldborg Hansen, chief executive of iNudgeyou, a centre for applied behavioural research.

Many consultancies have sprung up to cater to corporate demand for behavioural insights. “What I found was that almost anyone who had read Nudge had a licence to set up as a behavioural scientist,” said Nuala Walsh, who formed the Global Association of Applied Behavioural Scientists in 2020 to try to set some standards…(More)”.