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Ashley Madison Hack Inspires Social Scientists To Look Behind The Names


File our next discussion under social scientists, they don't quite think like the rest of us. Case in point, when hackers stole millions of email addresses of people registered with the website Ashley Madison last July - that's the website that helps married people have affairs. Well, lots of people immediately went online to see if they knew people on the list.

But a group of social scientists went looking for something else - insight into the human propensity for taking risks. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam is here to explain. Welcome back.


CORNISH: OK, so they combed through this list of email addresses. What were they looking for?

VEDANTAM: They were trying to understand whether there's a relationship between personal ethics, as displayed on a site like Ashley Madison, and your behavior at work. Now, to be fair, Audie, there's lots of different kinds of intimate relationships, and having an extramarital affair doesn't automatically make you unethical.

But Ashley Madison focuses on making cheating discrete, meaning it's attracting people, mostly men, by the way, who want to cheat without their wives finding out.

CORNISH: OK, so how do these researchers go about making this connection between the personal and the professional?

VEDANTAM: John Griffin at the University of Texas at Austin, along with Samuel Kruger and Gonzalo Maturana (ph), they combed through the Ashley Madison list looking for people who were executives at various firms in the United States. The researchers honed in on the fact that if you actually plan to use Ashley Madison, you need to pay to connect with other people.

So the first thing they did was to limit their analysis to people who paid for access to these kinds of transactions. The billing data from those transactions provided addresses, billing names, and, presumably, these were less likely to be fake than just email addresses. The researchers then matched the names with various databases, did multiple checks to ensure the people they identified on Ashley Madison were the same people who were the CEOs and CFOs of various firms.

In order to test whether these companies were more likely to do dishonest things, the researchers looked at a couple of different measures. They looked to see whether the firm was the target of a class action lawsuit or the firm had made financial misstatements.

CORNISH: OK, don't keep us in suspense here. What did you find?

VEDANTAM: There was a robust correlation between personal ethics and professional ethics. Corporate infractions were more than twice as likely at firms that had a CEO or a CFO who signed up on Ashley Madison compared to similar firms where the top executives had not signed up on the site.

CORNISH: What's the moral of the story then?

VEDANTAM: Well, the moral of the story at one level is you can say personal ethics and professional ethics are connected. But actually, it gets a little more complicated than that, Audie. You can think of Ashley Madison in terms of ethical behavior, but you can also think of it in terms of risk-taking behavior. You're taking a risk with your marriage, for example, if you go looking for an extramarital affair.

If the same risk-taking behavior also shows up in other domains of your life, it can have negative effects, but it can also have positive effects.

CORNISH: Yeah, like, wouldn't you want a CEO to be a little bit of a risk-taker?

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. So a second group of researchers, these include William Grieser, Nishad Kapadia, Qingqiu Li and Andrei Simonov, they looked at 47,000 Ashley Madison users. These are not CEOs and CFOs. These are just workers who use their corporate email addresses to sign up for the website. Not very smart.

And then they look to see if the companies for which they presumably worked were more or less likely to engage in various kinds of risk-taking. And again, the researchers found that risk-taking in one domain was correlated with risk-taking in other domains. But this time, the message was more positive. Companies with more Ashley Madison, you know, enthusiasts tended to take more risks as measured by the number of patents they registered, by the use and success of those patents and their willingness to invest in R and D.

These companies also took bigger financial risks, some of which paid off big, some of which failed big, which is what you expect to see when people are taking risks. The bottom line, Audie, is that this and other studies suggests is it's not easy to have your cake and eat it too. If you want people at your company to be risk takers and innovators, you may also have to live with some of them taking some dangerous risks.

CORNISH: Well, it was a big story at the time. It's nice to hear some follow-up. Shankar Vedantam, thanks so much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks so much, Audie.

CORNISH: Shankar is NPR's social science corresponded. He's also host of a podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It's called Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.