In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg refers to some study from the University of Western Ontario:


About a decade ago, a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario tried to answer a question that had bewildered social scientists for years: Why do some eyewitnesses of crimes misremember what they see, while other recall events accurately? (...)

She wondered if researchers were making a mistake by focusing on what questioners and witnesses had said, rather than how they were saying it. She suspected there were subtle cues that were influencing the questioning process. But when she watched videotape after videotape of witness interviews, looking for these cues, she couldn’t see anything. There was so much activity in each interview – all the facial expressions, the different ways the questions were posed, the fluctuating emotions – that she couldn’t detect any patterns.

So she came up with an idea: She made a list of a few elements she would focus on – the questioners’ tone, the facial expressions of the witness, and how close the witness and the questioner were sitting to each other. Then, she removed any information that would distract her from those elements. She turned down the volume on the television so, instead of hearing words, all she could detect was the tone of the questioner’s voice. She taped a sheet of paper over the questioner’s face, so all she could see was the witnesses’ expressions. She held a tape measure to the screen to measure their distance from each other.

And once she started studying these specific elements, patterns leapt out. She saw that witnesses who misremembered facts usually were questioned by cops who used a gentle, friendly tone. When witnesses smiled more, or sat closer to the person asking the questions, they were more likely to misremember.

In other words, when environmental cues said “we are friends” – a gentle tone, a smiling face – the witnesses were more likely to misremember what had occurred. Perhaps it was because, subconsciously, those friendship cues triggered a habit to please the questioner.

But the importance of this experiment is that those same tapes had been watched by dozens of other researchers. Lots of smart people had seen the same patterns, but no one had recognized them before. Because there was too much information in each tape to see a subtle cue.

Once the psychologist decided to focus on only three categories of behavior, however, and eliminate the extraneous information, the patterns leapt out.

Whole chapter is available here How Habits Work.

Do you know guys where I can find this study? In it not listed in notes.

  • $\begingroup$ I've read the book section in question in the meantime. Alas the main point there was not a published study but the psychologist's observation about her own behavior. That would be considered anecdotal evidence so usually not publishable, except maybe in a book or commentary. The actual study she was doing might have been published, but I doubt it will say much about the main point in that book section. $\endgroup$ – Fizz Jan 5 '18 at 23:29
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you. I'll write an email to author of the book and I'll ask him directly whether study exists. $\endgroup$ – matyyyy Jan 6 '18 at 12:19

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