Thursday, September 6, 2012

More on Andrew Gelman's tobacco post

Andrew Gelman's recent post on distinguished researchers who did less than distinguished work for the tobacco industry reminded me that I've been meaning to do some posts on Robert B. Cialdini's Influence (either the textbook or the mass market edition. They're both pretty much interchangeable).

For those not familiar with the book, Cialdini takes some well-established principles of influence such as the impulse to reciprocate and shows how these effects can be seen in psychological studies, historical anecdotes, news stories, everyday incidents and, most famously, marketing campaigns, then he wraps up by putting things into an evolutionary psych context that, God help me, actually appeals to common sense.

There's a lot of cool stuff in Cialdini's book (just the part about the "brainwashing" of Korean War POWs is worth the price of admission), but the relevant points for the Gelman post are:

1. When you give a researcher money while nominally refusing to dictate results (which, I suspect is how this normally works), you create a sense of obligation. This leads to cognitive dissonance -- the researchers wants to see him or herself as honest but at the same time wants to repay the company, which can only be done through bad research. The dissonance is often resolved by adjustment of personal beliefs (the researcher convinces him or herself that the research really does back up the company's position).

2. People tend to underestimate how much and how easily they can be influenced. Doctors insist that small gifts from drug companies don't influence them despite numerous studies that show the technique to be highly effective.

3. Subsidized research is dangerous.

I'm working from memory here and not doing Cialdini justice. He has tons of supporting evidence and numerous persuasive examples of these phenomena. Fascinating book, particularly for anyone with a marketing background. If I ever get caught up, I'll have more posts on this.

UPDATE: based on some feedback, I refined my position somewhat in the comments section.


  1. Mark:

    The above all makes sense but I want to disagree with you on one point.

    You write that repaying the company "can only be done through bad research." I disagree. Repaying can also be done through good research that accords with the company's goals (as in the example of Rubin's testimony), through irrelevant research (for example, studying the effects of non-cigarette hazards on non-lung cancers), or through non-research activities (as with Huff).

    This is not a trivial distinction when considering ethical issues. Doing bad research violates the norms of professional ethics. Doing irrelevant research, not so clear. Doing good research is in line with professional ethics, which is a point Rubin makes in his discussion of his consulting experiences.

    1. Valid point, I probably should have said "one obvious way is to come up with a conclusion that the researcher wouldn't have reached otherwise."

      I should also have been more clear that when I talked about "bad research" I was thinking in terms of affected judgement and confirmation bias, not fraud or clearly unethical behavior. In order to resolve the dissonance, the researcher has to believe that he's doing good work.

      Going back to the medical example, very few doctors would deliberately give a patient sub-optimal care in exchange for pens and paperweights, but when they perform the complex calculations of deciding on a treatment, small gifts influence them more than they realize.

      It is certainly possible to do good research for not-so-good people. Remaining truly impartial is another matter.

      (As for Huff, I suspect he spent so much time exposing genuinely bad statistics that he became irrationally distrustful of the field)

  2. I think Andrew is on to a pretty important point. You cna give a research subsidy (gratis) and put it on something with high visibility (e.g. pediatric cancer) that is basically unrelated to cigarette smoking. Not only can that research be good, it can also be of high value.

    What is concerning is how likely the same person is to then make cigarette smoking an area of research.

    These issues get really tricky, and don't go away with any funding source (at some level).