Monday, June 22, 2015

Why corporations should experiment on us without our consent

Can it ever be ethical for companies or governments to experiment on their employees, customers or citizens without their consent?

The conventional answer — of course not! — animated public outrage last year after Facebook published a study in which it manipulated how much emotional content more than half a million of its users saw. ...

But this outrage is misguided. Indeed, we believe that it is based on a kind of moral illusion.

Companies — and other powerful actors, including lawmakers, educators and doctors — “experiment” on us without our consent every time they implement a new policy, practice or product without knowing its consequences. ...

Why does one “experiment” (i.e., introducing a new product) fail to raise ethical concerns, whereas a true scientific experiment (i.e., introducing a variation of the product to determine the comparative safety or efficacy of the original) sets off ethical alarms?

In a forthcoming article in the Colorado Technology Law Journal, one of us (Professor Meyer) calls this the “A/B illusion” — the human tendency to focus on the risk, uncertainty and power asymmetries of running a test that compares A to B, while ignoring those factors when A is simply imposed by itself.

Consider a hypothetical example. A chief executive is concerned that her employees are taking insufficient advantage of the company’s policy of matching contributions to retirement savings accounts. She suspects that telling her workers how many others their age are making the maximum contribution would nudge them to save more, so she includes this information in personalized letters to them. ...

You can’t answer these questions [of whether the letters worked] without doing a true scientific experiment — in technology jargon, an “A/B test.” The company could randomly assign its employees to receive either the old enrollment packet or the new one that includes the peer contribution information, and then statistically compare the two groups of employees to see which saved more.

Let’s be clear: This is experimenting on people without their consent, and the absence of consent is essential to the validity of the entire endeavor. If the C.E.O. were to tell the workers that they had been randomly assigned to receive one of two different letters, and why, that information would be likely to distort their choices.

Our chief executive isn’t so hypothetical. Economists do help corporations run such experiments, but many managers chafe at debriefing their employees afterward, fearing that they will be outraged that they were experimented on without their consent. A company’s unwillingness to debrief, in turn, can be a deal-breaker for the ethics boards that authorize research. So those C.E.O.s do what powerful people usually do: Pick the policy that their intuition tells them will work best, and apply it to everyone.

Most of the policies and practices that we live by aren’t evidence-based, and good intentions don’t guarantee desired outcomes. The C.E.O. who goes with her gut and tells her employees how much their peers are saving? According to one study, she may actually cause them to save less. ...

We aren’t saying that every innovation requires A/B testing. Nor are we advocating nonconsensual experiments involving significant risk.

But as long as we permit those in power to make unilateral choices that affect us, we shouldn’t thwart low-risk efforts, like those of Facebook and OkCupid, to rigorously determine the effects of those choices. Instead, we should cast off the A/B illusion and applaud them.
--Michelle Meyer and Chris Chabris, NYT, on misguided outrage