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Oh, so that’s what ethicists do

So OKCupid has been doing psychological experiments on its users. Big deal! Here’s what they think of that.

Alex Goldman: Have you thought about bringing in, say, like an ethicist to, to vet your experiments?

 

Christian Rudder, founder of OkCupid: To wring his hands all day for a hundred thousand dollars a year?

Sweet gig. Could they do occasional thumb-twiddling to change it up a bit? Or play Angry Birds on their cell phone?

Comments

  1. Al Dente says

    Have you thought about bringing in, say, like an ethicist to, to vet your experiments?

    What? Um, no. We weren’t smart enough to do that. But we are smart enough to sneer at ethicists in hopes you won’t push the question any further.

  2. says

    Ugh…

    1. Ethicists are way cheaper than that.
    2. Any ethicist who would choose to work for them would quickly realise that they’re getting paid far, far too little.

  3. robro says

    Warning from their iTunes page:
    • Infrequent/Mild Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use or References
    • Infrequent/Mild Sexual Content and Nudity
    • Infrequent/Mild Profanity or Crude Humor
    • Frequent/Intense Mature/Suggestive Themes

    Pretty much covers the ethical bases to me.

    Guess what? All the founders…guys. Most of the team…guys! Average age: maybe 30. I knew you couldn’t guess any of that.

    I’ll wring my hands for $50k, but then I’m no ethicist.

  4. robro says

    chigau — I wonder if they consulted European lawyers. The EU seems more on top of these sort of issues than the US, and more willing to swing the heavy mallet.

  5. anteprepro says

    Don’t they have sort of Review Board for psychology studies? Maybe it depends on the institution that researcher is a part of, but I swore that you need to get the ethics of your study reviewed before you start doing the research….

  6. robro says

    anteprepro — OKcupid isn’t an institution. What they were doing could be construed as marketing research or software testing, neither of which are regulated by academic research standards and policies. What they did is similar to the recent revelation of Facebook manipulating user feeds to see how their customers responded. There’s probably an enormous regulatory gap around this area.

  7. anteprepro says

    robro: So it wasn’t actual scientific research done by researchers, it was the corporation mining data from their customers? In the form of “psychology research”? Yeah, regulatory gap is right. Christ.

  8. Akira MacKenzie says

    I tried OkCupid once a few years back after an IT instructor suggested as a “geek-friendly” dating site.

    Never got a date out of them.

  9. doublereed says

    Er… wouldn’t the ethicist just have a massive conflict of interest anyway? Your boss is asking you whether something he’s doing is okay?

  10. bionichips says

    I know it is a side issue but I read somewhere OkCUpid is atheist friendly. I switched from Match.com and Ourtime (I am 66 year old male) and I have been much more successful in meeting women, Of course I changed my profile also so who knows

  11. Raryn says

    Institutional review board approval is only required from institutions which take federal funding for their research. OKC was really just doing basic A vs B testing, something websites around the world do every day. No special review needed.

  12. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    A utilitarian ethicist wouldn’t “wring his hands all day”. They’d wring Rudder’s neck, for the greater benefit of mankind.

  13. Matt Penfold says

    “Institutional review board approval is only required from institutions which take federal funding for their research. OKC was really just doing basic A vs B testing, something websites around the world do every day. No special review needed.”

    OKCupid is not exactly the same as websites selling stuff. There is the very real prospect of causing harm or distress on the part of OKCupid, so I am at a loss to understand why you think that does not require more attention to ethics on their part.

  14. says

    @Raryn #12 – You are correct that Institutional Review Boards are required only when human research is being sponsored by, funded by or otherwise authorized by federal agencies. Nonetheless, federal law still requires that there be a clear review of the methodology and ethics, and that informed consent be obtained from all study participants. Failure to get this review can taint the results, leading it to be rejected as fatally flawed by the scientific community. That breaks down, however, when the “research” is little more than telling people their fly is open when it really isn’t, with no intent of ever sharing the results as research. That is basically what OkCupid was doing.

  15. doublereed says

    Also, considering he came forward openly about this, I almost feel weird about the negative press. Like as he points out, it’s not like Tinder or Match.com don’t do this kind of thing. So it’s more like OKCupid’s being punished for being honest, rather than being punished for doing something bad.

  16. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    If anything, a site like OKCupid should have had an ethicist on staff from the beginning. Everything they do is an experiment.

    They have an algorithm that matches people. The quality of the algorithm in the first place is unknown. It’s no wonder if every result is part of software testing, since I doubt the algorithm is actually anything even remotely scientifically sound. I’m not really sure what’s surprising, and the author of the first article PZ linked discusses that.

  17. see_the_galaxy says

    Why keep doing business with a lying crap of a company like that? I think they’ve shown their customers what they think of them.

  18. doublereed says

    @17 Beatrice

    A scientifically sound algorithm that matches people? What does that even mean? It’s community-submitted questions with people self-reporting.

    And I still don’t understand how you could hire an ethicist without the ethicist pointing out his own conflict of interest.

  19. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    doublereed,

    That’s the point! Nothing they do is correct or the right way, it’s all one big experiment so one can’t just focus on them experimenting on people now when they’ve been doing it all along.

  20. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    Um, to be honest… they could use much more than one.
    Look at Facebook and their ever-changing rules which they don’t notify you about. That place could certainly use someone to tell tham what they are doing is just plain unethical.
    Of course, this doesn’t go just for social media, but also for all kinds of comapnies…. and we’re moving into in my dreams territory, I’m afraid. As you pointed out, there’s the conflict of interests.

    (Haven’t thought on this all that much before (only in passing when similar things were discussed), I’m following my stream of thought as I process what my own suggestion could and should be extrapolated to)