Will huge speaker fees from interested parties bias one’s judgment?

Suppose the members of some athletic team at your university are enrolled in your course, in which they are doing very poorly.  Suddenly you receive an invitation from the team to give a talk at a monthly meeting on, let us suppose, how to be a good student.  They are offering you a $25,000 fee.  Will accepting that fee bias your final decisions about their grades?

The answer is not as straightforward as one might wish.  In the case of a university professor, the answer is probably in the negative.  I would have thought it is probably also negative for a political candidate.

Interesting research on this question has been done in Read Montague’s labs.  (See references below.)  The ultimate target was doctors’ continued claims that favors from drug companies did not influence their prescription practices.  Using “the picture viewing paradigm”, the researchers wanted to see whether benefits can bias judgments.  Their test looked at subject’s judgments about the quality of pictures that were quite tenuously linked to payments from companies.

Subjects are told that certain companies donated various funds for the research project they are taking part in. E.g., Company A donated $50; B donated $20 and C donated $10.  A simple spatial juxtaposition of a high-paying company’s logo and a painting leads participants to prefer to the painting over those juxtaposed with low paying companies’ logos.  The subjects are unaware of any relation between money and their choice.

So if the team players pay one $25,000 for a talk or an oil company pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to a political candidate, can they expect a better grade or more permissive laws?  Will the professors or the politicians serve up what is wanted while conveniently (and genuinely) remaining totally unaware of any connection?

The research doesn’t support that conclusion at all; in fact, further research in the same lab lends some support to the opposite.  There are two factors that subvert the influence of favors without any special extra cogitating..  The first is expertise; ordinary subjects were influenced by the companies degrees of financial support, but art experts were not.  So if you have expertise in arriving at final grades or judging good legislature, nothing in the research suggests your opinion will be corrupted.  Secondly, the presence of bad consequences for your decisions may also influence you.  If you might be found out as a professor from whom grades can be bought, you will not grade them leniently.  If you could be pilloried as the purchased politician, the chances are that the legislation you support will provide no evidence for such.

(Notice:  the fact that expertise overcomes mild linkage between benefits and paintings does not show that expertise could overcome direct linkage to huge benefits.  But, given there is apparently little or no evidence that speaker fees influenced Clinton’s judgments, it seems that in some cases expertise and a common realization of what shirking one’s duty could do managed to subvert the influence.)

To be more specific:

The argument:

Premise:  Hillary Clinton received hundreds of thousands of dollars to give talks to financial companies.

Conclusion: Hillary Clinton’s decisions about these companies were corrupted.

is a bad argument invoking a factual model that does not apply.


Harvey, A. K., U; Denfield, GH; Montague, PR. (2010). Monetary Favors and Their Influence on Neural Responses and Revealed Preference. JOURNAL OF NEUROSCIENCE 30(28), 9597-9602.

Kirk, U., Harvey, A., & Montague, P. (2011). Domain expertise insulates against judgment bias by monetary favors through a modulation of ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 108(25), 10332-10336.