A Dinner with Drug Reps

June 27, 2012 BY danariely

Over the years I’ve written all sorts of blog posts on dishonesty, and because the new book release, I want to repost an updated version of them to accompany. For the next few days I’ll post one every other day. Enjoy!

Janet Schwartz of Tulane University and I once spent an evening with a few former pharmaceutical reps, men who used to be in the business of selling a wide range of drugs to treat all kinds of diseases and conditions, from fibromyalgia to depression to restless leg syndrome. As drug representatives, they would go from doctor to doctor attempting to convince physicians to prescribe their company’s drugs. How? Typically they would start by passing on informative pamphlets and giving out products like pens, clipboards, and notepads advertising their drugs.

But we knew there was more to the story, so we tried the pharmaceutical reps at their own game – we took them to a nice dinner and kept the wine flowing. Once we got them a bit sauced, they were ready to tell all. And what we learned was fairly shocking.

Picture these guys: attractive, charming young men. Not the kind of guys who would have trouble finding a date. One of them told us a story about how he was once trying to persuade a reluctant female physician to attend a seminar about a medication he was promoting. After a bit of persuading, she finally decided to attend – but only after he agreed to escort her to a ballroom dancing class. This, according to our new friends, was a typical kind of quid pro quo where the rep does a personal favor for the doctor and the doctor promotes the rep’s product in return.

Another common practice was to bring meals to the doctor’s office (one of the perks of being a receptionist), and one office even required alternating days of steak or lobster for lunch in exchange for access to the (well-fed) doctors.

Even more shocking was that when the reps were in the physician’s office, they were sometimes called into the examination room (as “experts”) to inform the patients about the drug directly. And the device reps experienced a surprisingly intimate level of involvement in patient care, often selling medical devices in the operating room, while the surgery was going on.

Aside from learning about their profession, we also realized how well these pharmaceutical reps understood classic psychological persuasion strategies, and how they employed them in a sophisticated and intuitive manner. One clever tactic they used was to hire physicians to give a brief lecture to other physicians about a drug. Now, they really didn’t care what the audience took from the lecture, but were actually interested in what the act of giving the lecture did to the speaker himself. They found that after giving a short lecture about the benefits of a drug, the speaker would begin to believe his own words and soon prescribe accordingly. Psychological studies show that people quickly start believing whatever comes out of their own mouths, even when they are paid to say it. This is a clear case of cognitive dissonance at play; doctors reason that if they are touting this drug, they must believe in it themselves — and so their beliefs alter to align with their speech.

The reps employed other tricks like switching on and off various accents, personalities, political affiliations, and basically served as persuasion machines (they may have mentioned the word “chameleon”). They were great at putting doctors at ease, relating to them as similar working people who go deep-sea fishing or play baseball together. They used these shared experiences to develop an understanding that the physicians write prescriptions for their “friends.”  The physicians, of course, did not think that they were compromising their values when they were out shooting the breeze with the drug reps.

I was recently at a conference for the American Medical Association, where I gave a lecture about conflicts of interest.  Interestingly, the lecture just before me was by a representative from a device company that created brain implants.  In his lecture he made the case for selling devices in the operating room because doctors could need help learning how to use the device. And in order to fight conflicts of interest, the company no longer takes physicians to Hawaii for their annual conferences — and instead they have their conference in Wisconsin.

So, what do we do?  First, we must realize that doctors have conflicts of interest.  With this understanding we need to place barriers that prevent this kind of schmoozing, and to keep reps from undue access to physicians or patients. They, of course, have the right to send doctors information, but their interactions should stop there.

I have one more idea: What if we only allow people to be drug reps if they are over 75 and unattractive? Not only would these individuals have more personal experience with the healthcare system, it also could reduce conflicts of interest and open up job opportunities to an undervalued population.

In Praise of Dishonesty

June 25, 2012 BY danariely

It was gratifying when I recently received some unexpected praise for the new book. If you’re having doubts about whether to read it, maybe this will help you decide…

“I’ve been handing out copies to everyone I know!”

–       Robin Hood


“The world is full of small cheaters, but what separates those amateurs from us pros is dedication and effort. Understanding dishonesty has made us not only more efficient, but it also kept us out of jail.”

–       Everyone responsible for the 2008 financial crisis


“In The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, Ariely shows that our ability to cheat is based on our ability to make ourselves feel good about lying. As a master of this skill, I can personally attest to his insights and findings. I feel great!”

–       Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo (“Charles”) Ponzi, (1882 –1949), inventor of the Ponzi scheme


“A princely read!”

–       Nicolo Machiavelli


“There’s a sucker born every minute, and Ariely teaches us that we’re likely to be one as well.”

–       Phineas Taylor Barnum (“P.T.”) Barnum, businessman, scam artist and entertainer

Religion and Research

June 21, 2012 BY danariely

Direct my steps by Your word, and let no iniquity have dominion over me.


Redeem me from the oppression of man, that I may keep Your precepts.

Make Your face shine upon Your servant, and teach me Your statutes.

Rivers of water run down from my eyes, because men do no keep Your law.

-Psalm 119: 133-136


If you read Predictably Irrational, you may recall that we carried out a study on cheating that assessed the value of moral reminders. In the experiment, we asked participants to complete a test, told them they’d receive cash for every correct answer, and made sure they knew they had ample room to cheat. Now here’s the kicker: prior to starting, we had half the participants list ten books off their high-school reading list, and the other half to recall the Ten Commandments, a manipulation that turned out to have a marked effect on the results: While many in the first group deceitfully reported a higher number of correct answers, no one in the second group cheated.


How do we explain the findings? A tempting conclusion to draw would be to equate religiosity with a higher morality; however, this argument doesn’t hold, since in a follow-up study with atheist participants, recalling the Ten Commandments had the exact same effect. Rather, what was at play here was the power of a moral reminder: Prime a person to think about ethics right before they have an opportunity to cheat, and they’ll avoid immoral behavior.


This experiment also suggests to me that religion can be a good source of ideas for social science research. If you think about religion as a social mechanism that has evolved over time, then you can ask what purpose(s) its many rules serve and how they can help us to better understand human nature.


For example, though religious leaders may not have understood the exact psychology of moral reminders, they’ve certainly had enough of an intuitive sense of their importance to circulate the Ten Commandments and emphasize a whole score of other religious tenets, statutes, and regulations. Whether or not they could cite the causes for it, somewhere along the line they gathered that a good way to keep people in check was to present them with a moral benchmark to keep in mind (e.g. reciting prayers, for instance, before dinner as a continual reminder of the standards).


Given religion’s role in society and the way it evolves over time, I think we could benefit from using its wisdom to direct social science research. The key is to zero in on a religious tenet and ask why it’s there and what it suggests about human behavior, and to then empirically test the hypothesis with the hopes of deriving science from religious texts.


God bless.

Social power and morality

June 20, 2012 BY danariely

The following is taken from the graduation speech of Michael Lewis at Princeton in 2012. In it, he discusses an experiment that explores the relationship between power and morality.

“…… a pair of researchers in the Cal psychology department staged an experiment. They began by grabbing students, as lab rats. Then they broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams of three into a room, and arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader. Then they gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating, or how to regulate drinking on campus.

Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group. They entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. The team consisted of three people, but there were these four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there. It should have been awkward. But it wasn’t. With incredible consistency the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths. In the end all that was left of the extra cookie were crumbs on the leader’s shirt.

This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.”


We’ve probably all heard the saying “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Well, there is a great deal of research concerning the link between social power and morality, and most of it suggests that absolute power is not required to change people’s morals; sadly it tends to show that more power leads to less care for others, and less moral behavior.

A year in the life of a city bike.

June 14, 2012 BY danariely

At one point the people who run Hudson Urban Bikes, a bike rental company in the West Village, wondered what would happen to a bike if it was left chained to a post in the city for one year, and they took a picture of it each day to document its progress. The bicycle began its experimental journey equipped with all necessary equipment plus a basket, water bottle, splashguard and a few other goodies.

For quite a while the bike sits quietly chained next to a host of other bikes, retaining all of its accouterment. Then, on day 160 all of a sudden the water bottle goes missing. Then a few weeks later on day 212, both the lock and the basket walk off. From there things really begin to deteriorate, and it’s not long before the seat is missing, followed soon after by the front tire, splashguard, and handle bars.

Finally the forlorn frame itself disappears.

To my mind, this experiment cleverly mimics several aspects of dishonesty. People are basically fairly honest most of the time, but at some point they are tempted to cheat or take one small thing, or they see someone else do so. Over time this works through them, and maybe they take another small thing. After a while, this becomes habit, and people begin cheating at full throttle, and next thing you know, the whole bicycle is missing (figuratively).

That said, I think it bodes well that the bike lasted as long as it did, particularly after the lock was removed. It seems we can rest a little easier knowing that people, for the most part, don’t cheat as much as they could, or as much as we would expect them too, rationally speaking—after all, just think of how many people walked by the apparently free, unlocked bike and ignored it.

Women, Men, and Math Problems.

June 10, 2012 BY danariely

In the experiments my colleagues and I have run on cheating, we’ve used a task in which pride about personal performance and ability has no part. The matrix test is merely a search task (wherein participants find the two numbers out of 12 that add up to 10) rather than a skill. It’s not something you’re going to brag to your friends about in all likelihood.

Recent graduate Heidi Nicklaus of Rutgers University was interested in the opposite; she wondered how people’s pride about their perceived and imputed abilities would affect their dishonesty. Specifically, she was interested in gender stereotypes. We’ve all heard the stereotype that men tend to excel at math more than women, and that women can talk and write circles around men with their superior verbal skills. So the question was, if men are more proud of their mathematic ability and women of verbal, it might cause them to cheat more.

In her experiment, Heidi first primed her participants with two comical videos that exaggerate gender stereotypes (see below). Then participants were presented with one of two sets of fake data (presented as legitimate); one supported the math versus verbal aptitude stereotypes, the other countered them. Finally, participants took brief 10-question tests measuring both math and verbal aptitude, and were told they would receive $.50 for each correct answer. Similar to the experiments my colleagues and I have run on cheating, half of participants in each condition could cheat while the other half could not.

The results showed that when people could cheat, they generally did, which is what I’ve always found in cheating experiments. On average, people claimed one extra correct answer than when cheating was not possible (an average of 4 instead of 3 correct answers out of 10 on both math and verbal tests). No news here, so what about the effect of gender stereotypes? Did having them reinforced or, alternatively, countered before taking the test have any influence on cheating?

First, the hypothesis. What Heidi expected to find was that men and women would cheat along stereotypical lines, that is, that men would cheat more on math (to show that they did, indeed, excel in mathematics) and women would cheat more on the verbal portion for the same reason. So it was intriguing when Heidi found that men cheated more on math question than expected, but men and women cheated equally on verbal questions (rather than women cheating more as anticipated).

These findings—that people did not cheat more to keep up with perceived higher achievement by others—are similar to what my colleagues and I have found. In one experiment our results showed, similarly, that people cheated by the same amount regardless of whether they thought their peers solved an average of 4 or 8 out of 20 questions in a given amount of time (reporting an average of 6 correct answers). People cheated as much as they could justify, and apparently others’ performance is not of any great concern in this justification.

Oh, and as for the stereotype that kicked off the experiment: there were no differences in performance on math or verbal questions based on gender. So hopefully this harmful stereotype will fall by the wayside sooner rather than later, since nearly all similar studies yield the same conclusion.

The (Mostly) Honest Introduction to the (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty.

June 5, 2012 BY danariely

The new book is being released today, and so I’m very pleased to introduce it, in person! Well, sort of.  Here I give you a preview of what kinds of topics the book explores (when, where, why, and to whom we lie) and how all these things affect you (they do!).

Thanks, and enjoy!