Friendship cues triggered a habit to please the questioner

Thursday, May 20th, 2021

A psychologist at the University of Western Ontario took a different approach, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), to studying the question of why 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 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.


  1. Kirk says:

    When you get down to it, human cognition is inherently a very slipshod and extremely inconsistent thing, built on a shifting sand of inference and pattern-matching that goes on behind the scenes to such a degree that it’s a wonder we recognize our own faces in the mirror every morning.

    If you really examine your own thinking and recognition of things, the wonder is not that we have occasional glitches and that we’re synthesizing reality from one minute to the next, but that we manage anything even remotely cognitive and seemingly intelligent in the first damn place. You marvel at how suggestible people are, how prone they are to a “Clever Hans” approach to life…? What you should marvel at is, instead, is how adroitly they manage to build an image of reality from such minor cues and hints, coming to seemingly certain conclusions based on what can only be the most minimal basis imaginable.

    Same with a lot of animals… The wonder is not that the bear doesn’t dance all that well, but that he dances at all.

    The human mind is far more fragile and much more prone to what the unthinking consider “ephemeral influences” than anyone really wants to admit. We all dance along that narrow knife-edge of sanity and clear cognition, but not all of us want to admit just how sharp that edge is, or how often we miss the steps. If you’ve been sane, then insane, and somehow managed to come back to terms with the same reality that you once knew…? You might have noticed this feature of your own mind, and be able to appreciate just how much of a kludge the whole thing is, and how much depends on ohsomany little things that the average person never notices or places importance on.

    Visit the madness place a time or two, and you will have an appreciation for how easily others can lose their grasp on the rope.

    Frankly, the idea of relying on eye-witness reports for anything terrifies me. I’ve done accident investigations in the military, and the one thing that struck me about it, aside from the generally spotty nature of education in this country, is how variant the witness statements were. Even for guys in the same truck cab, sitting side-by-side? Vastly different reports made of the experience, and the further you got from the event and the more times they repeated their version of events, the wider and wider the variances.

    Since we’re basically synthesizing our memories of events as we’re reporting them, the fact that errors and misperceptions are going to creep in should hardly be surprising. And, the fact that the interrogator can influence the witness this way? Again, it should not be surprising. What is surprising is how little of this has actually penetrated into police and law enforcement circles, most of which still operate as though eye-witness reports of things are reliable and unquestionable.

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