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Does self-deception play a role in questionable research practices?

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Social scientist Leon Festinger did some fascinating studies in the 1950s on “cognitive dissonance.” He used the term to describe the uncomfortable tension people feel when they find their actions are inconsistent with their beliefs. Rather than change their behavior to fit their beliefs, they will change what they believe to be true to alleviate the tension.

In one of Festinger’s experiments, some subjects were paid $20 to tell a specific lie, while another group of subjects only got $1 to do the same. The ones who received $1 were far more likely to claim, after the event, that they had actually believed in the lie they were told to tell, as if that somehow made it easier to swallow the fact they’d sold out and told a lie for a pittance.

One can imagine a graduate student or post-doctoral fellow engaging in questionable research practices due to perceived expectencies from the principal investigator. Do these people convince themselves that what they're doing is not wrong?  Is it possible that some researchers lie to themselves about engaging in questionable practices? What do you think?

 

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Comments

Yes

Self-deception is an important and ubiquitous human tactic. I'm not being ironic and I'm not joking. We fool ourselves frequently. People are often more confident about a project's success than the evidence shows; our inflation the probability of success is a kind of self-deception that in many cases makes it possible to go on in spite of failures and roadblocks.

Our estimate that we can get away with cheating, or that cheating is the only/best/easiest way to succeed, is another kind of self-deception.

Much self-deception is innocuous or even helpful. Some (how much I don't pretend to know) is harmful to self and others. 

Ken Pimple

Indiana University

Do these people convince

Do these people convince themselves that what they're doing is not wrong? Is it possible that some researchers lie to themselves about engaging in questionable practices?

Not possible, but inevitable and quite evident. Most prominently, biased reporting or "cherry picking" is rampant, yet completely unnoticed as such. I was told and even warned by several distinguished researchers how "everybody shows their best data" - by best, of course, they meant best-looking and most supporting of their pet hypotheses, not most reliable or most representative of what really happened in the lab. Such unscientific, deceptive, and damaging practice is perceived as something normal, and perfectly acceptable - even desirable if one is to "succeed" in academic terms.

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