A high profile paper published in 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) set out to answer that question — and found that yes, the more money people have, the more likely they are to lie, cheat, and steal. And the greedier they are, the worse they behave. But when a more recent paper tried to replicate some of those findings, it couldn’t.
It turns out, both the original paper and the paper that tried to replicate it contained errors. Although neither appear to affect the main conclusions, the authors of the 2016 replication recently issued a correction; the error in the 2012 paper was initially deemed too insignificant to correct, but the journal has decided to revisit the idea of issuing a correction.
A representative of PNAS told us that the replication paper — and reporting by Retraction Watch — is the reason why:
We reached out to the author about the Correction on September 20 after receiving your note regarding the [replication] article…Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention.
Is greed good?
The replication study, published Jan. 31 in Scientific Data, focused on the effect of greed on the relationship between wealth and good behavior, and tried to replicate the findings of the 2012 PNAS paper, “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior.”
The PNAS paper found that the socioeconomic elite were more likely to engage in or endorse lying, cheating, or stealing. The paper attributed that propensity to a belief, in the words of fictional corporate raider Gordon Gekko, from the 1987 film “Wall Street,” that “greed is good.” And by priming people to think that way, the researchers reported that they could induce their subjects to answer questions more unethically — more like rich people.
The report caught hold in the popular press around the world — Scientific American, Der Spiegel, and The Guardian all ran stories — and has received ongoing mentions in stories about similar studies concerning the moral lacunae of the economic elite. The paper has also gained traction in the field of psychology — it has been cited 174 times since 2012, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.
Joshua Patenaude, an author on the replication attempt and a doctoral student at the University of Western Ontario (Western), told us:
It seemed like a sound study to replicate. It had a well done methodology and we thought we were primed to replicate it by increasing its sample size.
But while trying to replicate the 2012 paper’s findings on the effect of greed, the authors — all from Western — found a bit of math in the PNAS paper that didn’t quite look right. Patenaude told us:
We were running the numbers calculating everything from our study and their study and one [value] didn’t quite add up.
None of the values changed, it was just that one of the numbers was put in wrong.
In September 2016, the Western team contacted the authors of the 2012 study, including first author Paul Piff, now a professor at the University of California, Irvine, to let them know about the error.
Piff told us his team waited until April 2017 to contact PNAS about the error, attributing the delay to “the perceived extremely minor nature of the standard error typo.” He said the journal didn’t push for a correction:
they indicated that PNAS issues corrections only for changes that significantly impact the scientific conclusions of an article such that an informed reader would be misled without the correction.
In consultation with PNAS, and given their guidelines and the nature of the correction, we decided not to proceed with the correction at that time.
That’s since changed, and Piff and PNAS are again in contact to discuss publication of a correction to the paper.
The snake eats its own tail
On March 8, Piff returned the favor of pointing out a mistake. He found the authors of the replication study had inadvertently inverted their analysis to show that acting unethically was not associated with being rich. In fact, it was — weakly. Piff identified the rich-poor mix-up while reviewing the methods, data, and analysis Patenaude had shared online using the Open Science Framework.
Piff told us the errors in the replication study were “not a big deal.”
For a number of reasons, especially the inverted analysis mistake, the situation reminds us of a set of papers, now corrected, that originally linked conservative political beliefs to signs of “psychoticism.”
Though the Western researchers felt their results held, they decided to pursue a correction. Last author Lorne Campbell, a professor at Western, told us they did so “in the interest of accurate reporting.”
The Western team worked on the corrigendum, with Piff’s help, over the next month before requesting a correction on April 17. The journal offered a few suggestions on how to draft the notice, Patenaude said, and received the final draft of the corrigendum on July 25.
So on Sept. 5, the authors of “A 4-study replication of the moderating effects of greed on socioeconomic status and unethical behaviour” issued a corrigendum to their paper, admitting to making a mistake in their statistical analysis. They wrote:
there was an error in the SPSS syntax for the regression models analyzing the main effects.
In the notice, the authors explain that, even after correcting their data, they were still unable to validate the 2012 paper’s finding that greed had any effect on the relationship between wealth and unethical behavior.
Patenaude said the episode has been “highly informative” and characterized the episode as a win for the open science model. Concerning his team’s statistical mistake, he said:
I prefer it be found now than years later. It was a good thing.
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