Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The C.S.I. Syndrome


Tom R. Tyler
Tom R. Tyler

Among the first reports on the C.S.I. Effect was one published early in 2006 in the Yale Law Journal, written by psychology professor Tom R. Tyler. He noted that the real crux of the "effect" was that there was a higher percentage of acquittals, which supported calls for reform in the legal system. Since the "evidence" was entirely anecdotal, he thought the claim was baseless.

While Tyler and others said at the time that there was no quantified evidence of crime shows affecting the judicial process, many attorneys were nevertheless concerned to the point of talking to jurors about it in their opening statements and closing arguments. Few cases have all the pieces of the puzzle, and C.S.I., they said, made the process of getting them seem effortless. And there was another, more potent, concern: the public had viewed shows that have hypothetically solved real-life cases before the actual case went to trial. In other words, a person's guilt or innocence was decided in the media. By 2007, attorneys were worried that jurors expected hard science, such as DNA analysis, in nearly every case.

US News and World Report logo
US News and World Report logo

U.S. News and World Report attributed the show's influence to its ability to attract 60 million viewers (for the three combined) to a presentation of science that is "sexy, fast, and remarkably certain." But even when the show is not "sexy," it has a way of showing a step-by-step process that makes viewers feel competent about behind-the-scenes investigation. A few graduate students and some professors began looking into ways to collect hard data on the show's impact on jurors, but the results were mixed, as well as unscientific. Sometimes the subjects were not even jurors but students.

Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Donald Shelton
Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Donald Shelton

Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Donald Shelton and two researchers from Eastern Michigan University decided to learn from jurors themselves whether they were affected by watching crime TV shows. While jurors in the general Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area are not a random sample for the entire nation, the study, which used 1027 subjects, is far better than anything else undertaken thus far.

Shelton had even presided over a trial in which a juror complained that investigators had not dusted the lawn for fingerprints, something which can hardly be blamed on a show. No crime show has ever demonstrated this particular technique, in part because it can't be done. Jurors did expect significant scientific evidence in trials, the researchers found, but less because of television than the impact of a computerized and technological age. Judge Shelton called it the "tech effect": Jurors expect that modern technology will be utilized in investigations, especially when prosecuting serious crimes.

But there are other factors as well. The crime dramas can actually promote a pro-law enforcement perspective and bias, which should result in more, not less, convictions. Thus, it's possible that people are less trusting than they used to be of law enforcement in general. This may be due to the many exonerations via DNA of innocent people or to recent news about how crime labs in several states have failed to protect against contamination and fraud.

Yet it's also true that a C.S.I. Effect is consistent with psychological studies in other contexts. People respond to subtle influences more than they realize. It is not necessary that one have seen a crime TV show for one to be affected by its impact on the culture.

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