RadioLab – Cosmic Habituation

May 03, 2011

In this short, Jonathan Schooler tells us about a discovery that launched his career and led to a puzzle that has haunted him ever since.

In the late 1980s, when Jonathan Schooler was a graduate student in psychology, he did a little study that became a big deal. Schooler asked a group of people to watch a video of a man robbing a bank. After watching the video, he had half of them jot down a description of the robber. And, wait for it ... turns out that the people who took notes were significantly LESS likely to recognize the robber later.

Not surprisingly, this weird effect -- called "verbal overshadowing" -- got a lot of attention. (In fact, we talked with Malcolm Gladwell about verbal overshadowing in our show about Choice). But just as Schooler's big discovery was making it into newspapers and Psych 101 textbooks…something started happening to his data. Each time he repeated the study, the exact same study, his once attention-grabbing effect got smaller and smaller.

In this podcast, Schooler tells Jad and Robert about his journey to figure out what had happened to him, and why it was happening to other scientists too. After considering all the reasonable explanations (statistical quirks and procedural stumbles), Schooler found himself thinking that maybe, just maybe, the laws of nature are less solid than they seem.