Response to Dan Ariely’s Duke Sex Toy Study Is Predictably Irrational

Predictably Irrational.jpgFather Joe Vetter, director of Duke University’s Catholic Center, is protesting trial participant accrual for a study being conducted on campus directed by Dr Dan Ariely, the James B Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics in the Fuqua School of Business (story and video). Ariely is also the author of the best-selling book, Predictably Irrational, an engaging, science-based examination of the rational and not-so-rational influences that contribute to decision-making. The new and expanded version of the book ranks #442 on Amazon.com book sales in the United States.
Look for that number to improve after the attention to Professor Ariely this weekend.
So, to what is Father Vetter objecting?
Ariely and his postdoctoral fellow, Dr Janet Schwartz, received IRB approval to recruit female study participants from the Duke campus community to examine the influence of Tupperware-like sex toy parties on sexual attitudes. A recruitment advert had been posted on the university website, as is commonly done for any clinical or social science study, but was pulled yesterday following the objection of Rev Vetter. Correction: Duke VP of Public Affairs Michael Schoenfeld notes in the comments below that the ads were removed after accrual was complete. Indeed, going to http://tinyurl.com/toyparty reveals that enrollment is closed.
However, here is one of the four ads:


Toy Party ad 1.jpg
If I understand his quotes correctly, Vetter believes that studying sex toys somehow condones behavior that threatens relationships:

“It’s not fostering relationships, and it seems to me that one of the things that we want young people to do is to figure out how to have deep, intimate friendships and relationships,” he said. “I would draw the line at a different place. I don’t think that it’s a good idea.”

Salon writer and editor Tracy Clark-Flory has a superb commentary in response.
I’m not privy to the hypothesis being tested but I suspect that the team is investigating how social norms toward adult products are influenced by groupthink. Ariely has not commented publicly on this story other than to say, rightfully so, that he won’t comment so as to not contaminate the results. However, I suspect that it may now be too late.
I’m disappointed in the university for pulling the recruitment ad. (see correction above). Ariely is an amazing academician who Duke was able to recruit from M.I.T. a few years ago. He is very well-known and highly-regarded in diverse academic circles. As judging by his book sales, he is also a successful communicator of his field to general audiences.
I’ve had the honor of meeting with Dr Ariely following my participation in one of his studies at my favorite local wine merchant, Wine Authorities – my kind of study. Together with his graduate students and a couple of M.I.T. professor colleagues, they were investigating the influence of behavioral and sensory factors on the perception of wine quality. I got to sit for awhile with Dan afterwards and he is every bit as fascinating as you might expect from reading his book: I found him to be the kind of guy who would be a terrific dinner guest with everyone from my family to my students. Dave Munger at Cognitive Daily also spoke of his meeting with Ariely during a visit to Davidson University.
You can see that Ariely is a great ambassador for his field – he gets out and interacts with the public and spends a lot of time communicating the importance of his science in everyday life.
Pain and Pleasure Suit.jpgAriely does not approach this work lightly. You can read his complete biography here, but he was influenced originally following an accident he had while doing his mandatory service in the Israeli military where he was burned over 70 percent of his body – this 12-page PDF account reveals not only his approach to the science but simply what an excellent writer he is. Ariely began wondering how we make decisions about painful stimuli: is it better to rip off burn dressings quickly and endure intense, acute pain, or to do it slowly and endure prolonged, moderate pain. Should you take breaks between removing individual dressings?
His academic papers listed at his site reveal the breadth of subsequent work he has done. And, yes, he has investigated sex before, both in terms of social norms vs market norms and the influence of arousal state on decision making. One study cited in his book asked questions of young men about sexual behavior and violence at baseline and after being asked to watch pornography on a Saran-wrapped laptop computer.
This YouTube video describes Chapter 5 of Predictably Irrational beginning with the story of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde to demonstrate how two divergent personalities can be present within us.


You can find more videos for each chapter of his book and other demonstrations here.
Dan Ariely is a fascinating man and an admired scholar. A statement of support made in an interview with Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs, is a step in the right direction but the university should take a stronger stance to protect the integrity of its scientific programs.
Oh, and go buy the book.

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13 thoughts on “Response to Dan Ariely’s Duke Sex Toy Study Is Predictably Irrational

  1. One point of clarification: the ad was “pulled” when the number of participants in the study reached the limit set by the researchers, as is standard practice for any study advertised on the website. The implication that it was done in response to pressure or publicity is untrue.

  2. Yes, I stand corrected, Mr Schoenfeld – I just realized that study accrual had closed when I clicked on the URL to enroll.
    Many thanks for reading and being on top of this story. I’m glad to see that you are supporting the academic integrity of Professor Ariely and his team.

  3. So happy to see support for Dan Ariely and his work here. I was a graduate student at UNC alongside him and participated in one of his pain perception studies. He is absolutely brilliant, very persistent, and, as you note, a very fascinating man. I am not surprised to now see his name in lights!

  4. Lets see if I have this right…
    Esteemed Professor invites female students to a sexual fetish party in the name of Science… and Research!
    Of experiments that will not die, this one must certainly be found a college classic. You can never have enough data…

  5. I see an excellent NCAA-licensing opportunity: collegiate-branded sex toys!
    The “Blue Devil”
    The Final Four
    The Krzyzewski (although that one sounds like an electric razor or a race car)

  6. So the question is, was the fact that the study accrual was closed prevent Father Vetter from stopping it (as there was nothing to stop any more), or is he really just presenting his opinion? It’s not clear if he was just speaking out — which I think should be his right. (I think it makes him look pretty ridiculous, but so what?) Or did he try to take action but learned of the study too late to do so?

  7. I love the way Dr. Ariely approaches topics that others do not even stop to think about. These are the deeply entrenched stereotypes. The ones that are so accepted, that few people would even consider that there is more than one way to view the subject. There are not enough people like Dr. Ariely.
    This should not be viewed as a sex toy study, but as a study of behavior and decision making. Coincidentally, there are sex toys involved.
    PS It has been a while since Predictably Irrational. Is another book on the way?

  8. I agree with Rogue Medic and what he says. We have so many different influences in life that small things seem to go missed and it is great when people take the time to exmine them.
    I agree that this should be seen as a behavior and decision making study rather than worrying about sex toys being involved.

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