Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The C.S.I. Syndrome

Filling in Gaps

Smith and Studebaker used ninety-one college students to make decisions about criminal events. They found that the subjects were more likely to fill in gaps in evidence with typical information, even if misleading, than with atypical. Their prior knowledge of crime categories seemed to influence their expectations for the story of a crime to move in a typical direction.

Subjects were exposed to a film of a murder in a crowd. They then received written information about it, but half were misled about certain details, such as describing a critical blue car as white. Those who had been exposed to the wrong information tended to report that rather than offering what they had actually seen, with error rates as high as 40%. In similar studies, people have reported nonexistent broken glass, a clean-shaven man having a mustache, straight hair as curly, stop signs as yield signs, and a barn in a pastoral scene that contained no buildings at all. The results reveal how easily jurors might be misled by falsely detailed reconstructions.

Memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus
Memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus

Memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus has further proven this phenomenon, labeling what happens as the "Misinformation Effect." That is, exposure to misinformation after experiencing an event can lead people to erroneous reports of that information. (A person sees the theft of a hammer, but another witness tells him she saw the thief take a screwdriver, so when he responds to questioning, he says that a screwdriver was taken.) The errors result from they way we acquire, retain and retrieve the information. We often accept suggested information, which then affects how our memories of that event or story form.

Thus, the power of story, which can influence and form both our memory and perceptions, can override the facts. If a story gets rolling that seems to make sense, its psychological momentum and sense of closure can shut out all else. We glue "facts" to the frame and ignore those that fail to cohere with the story.

In that case, a C.S.I. Effect, even if not yet measurably proven, is plausible, since crime dramas provide carefully constructed story arcs to present investigative issues and strategies. Yet, even if C.S.I. and its ilk influence verdicts, this apparently negative effect may be balanced with a positive effect. The show is not going away, so we might as well exploit the good side.