The provost of Gulf Isthmus University has been forced to resign and three professors affiliated with its marketing and psychology departments are under investigation after a scandal involving a source of research funding. Allegations were first raised in an anonymous letter to the university’s student newspaper stating that the researchers—Heather Intsunds, Derrick Elbium, and C. E. Klydde—received money from celestial beings to fund a series of psychological studies. The researchers never disclosed the source of funding, as required by university policy.
The studies in question looked at what is known as the “framing effect.” Previous research in this field had demonstrated that people tend to make very different choices based on how information is presented to them. For instance, in one study, surgeons overwhelmingly chose to go ahead with a procedure when told there was an 80% chance the patient would survive, but almost universally held back when told there was a 20% chance the patient would die. Although the framing effect has obvious implications for marketing and information design, the Gulf Isthmus University studies were the first to apply the ideas to spiritual decision making.
In one study, Intsunds, Elbium, and Klydde presented middle-aged married men with either a “magic love coin” that they were told would cause any woman to whom they gave it to want immediately to sleep with them or a “magic marriage destruction coin” with the exact same description of its effects. The coin was the same in both cases and was 100% efficacious. It had been provided by the angels. A control group received only a regular US quarter. The researchers then followed up with the men after 30 days, 90 days, and one year. In the “love coin” group, 90% of the men reported using the coin within 90 days, and the divorce rate after a year was 55%. In the “marriage destruction coin” group, 25% of men used the coin, and the divorce rate was 15%.
In another study, participants were given a small cloth doll, a roofing nail, and an empty box. In half the cases, the box was labeled “Revenge Study”; in the other half, “Reconciliation Study.” An experimenter then explained to participants that the person they hated most in the world would experience great pain if they cut the doll with the allotted nail. To prove the truth of this, participants were granted a vision of the hated person. They were also told that if they chose to place the doll in the box without harming it, they would be freed from all anger toward the other person and be absolved of their own wrongs. The experimenters then left the room, but were able to watch what transpired on a video feed. More than three-quarters of the participants told they were in a study of revenge harmed the doll. Some were seen to industriously shred areas such as the genitals or the head. Meanwhile, 70% of the reconciliation group laid their enemy in the box unharmed. The revenge group reported much higher levels of satisfaction with their experience.
The authors argue that these results give powerful insights into how to structure the “cognitive environment” surrounding spiritual dilemmas in order to encourage moral decisions.
But critics question whether any of the data can be trusted. “It’s a clear conflict of interest,” said scientific ethicist Herman Tuckworth. “If the entities funding the study have the potential to influence its outcome—and who thinks angels couldn’t tinker with the fabric of reality?—then the whole result is meaningless. This never should have been published.”
The journal in which the paper was published, Psychoneutics, has announced that it is investigating and may issue a retraction. John Hammersmith, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and a consulting editor at the journal, said, “To me, the concealment of any divine funding is ipso facto proof of wrongdoing. The paper has to be retracted. Where would science be if we allowed the moral powers to start dictating our courses of investigation? We have to seal this breach.”
Intsunds, Elbium, and Klydde declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigations. In a press statement, the choir of angels said, “We have been mystified by the choices made by humankind for millennia, and this breakthrough work has given us new insights that we are confident will redound to the greater benefit of all people. We fully support Heather Intsunds, Derrick Elbium, and C. E. Klydde.”