Public health largely depends on accurate scientific reporting. Each year, billions of dollars flow from government agencies like the National Institutes of Health to academic research labs throughout the country. In exchange for their tax investment, the public expects to ultimately benefit from scientific information that improves health and wellbeing. Implicit in this expectation is that researchers, whether they are entry-level lab assistants or principal investigators overseeing large operations, maintain the highest level of research integrity. To be specific, we expect that data be collected ethically, analyzed properly and reported honestly. And while there is no doubt that the vast majority of federally funded researchers operate ethically for the most part, well-documented cases of ethical violations still exist. We examine such violations from the perspective of behavioral economics-where we find that the tendency to cheat, even just a little bit, may not be driven by blatantly dishonest or unethical people, but rather by hardworking scientists who are influenced by their social environments and incentive structures. This project uses an experimental paradigm to study two specific factors that may compromise the ethicality of scientific reporting. First, we examine a phenomenon called self-serving altruism, which occurs when people cheat for the benefit of others. In large scientific laboratories, principal investigators must compete for grant money that not only funds their research agenda, but covers the salaries, benefits, and tuition of their employees and students. This heightened pressure and responsibility for others may unduly influence judgments. Next, we examine the role of motivated reasoning in data analysis. Data are often complex;assumptions are made, variables are created and combined, weighted and multiplied, and often only after extensive transformations are outputs finally interpreted. The question is to what extent these practices are influenced by external motivations and forces. For example, every field has rules regarding the exclusion of data or participants-but might these rules become increasingly flexible as deadlines loom or the pressure to publish grows? In sum, the goal of this research is to identify situational factors that may cause many researchers to succumb to conflicts of interest. Unlike the rare lone researcher who blatantly violates ethical codes of conduct, situational factors may be more problematic because they are likely to be unconscious and pervasive. As such, public health guidelines and recommendations that are based on scientific evidence may be compromised.

Public Health Relevance

Federally funded scientific research is an integral part of public health and shapes public policy. As such, we depend on researchers to be accurate and ethical in reporting results. Situational factors such as monetary incentives and social influences, however, may unduly influence judgments and leave the public at considerable risk.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)
Exploratory/Developmental Grants (R21)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZES1-TN-J (RI))
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Barnes, Martha
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Duke University
Other Domestic Higher Education
United States
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Williams, Elanor F; Pizarro, David; Ariely, Dan et al. (2016) The Valjean effect: Visceral states and cheating. Emotion 16:897-902
Chan, Cindy; Van Boven, Leaf; Andrade, Eduardo B et al. (2014) Moral Violations Reduce Oral Consumption. J Consum Psychol 24:381-386
Gino, Francesca; Ayal, Shahar; Ariely, Dan (2013) Self-Serving Altruism? The Lure of Unethical Actions that Benefit Others. J Econ Behav Organ 93: