Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The C.S.I. Syndrome

Story-telling and the Courtroom

As the O. J. Simpson trial heated up in 1995, the defense attorneys wondered how the jury would process complicated information like blood analysis, but Barry Scheck had an idea that shifted the strategy. Based on what he said, Simpson's lead lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, quickly transformed the defense. Essentially, Scheck offered one simple finding from psychological research: People transform testimony into a story that makes sense to them. They build a narrative and absorb all subsequent information through it, selectively processing facts consistent with the story and ignoring or not even perceiving those that aren't.

Barry Scheck
Barry Scheck

It's a common practice for humans to construct truth, and in doing so we respond strongly to the structure of a coherent narrative. If a court case is presented to juries in the form of a compelling story, the plot often has more force than the evidence, especially if the presentation fails to offer closure. The same thing can happen with an investigation: once the story forms from a cop's threshold diagnosis (gut impression), the plot that unfolds can have more force than the facts. This dynamic appears to derive from the way human consciousness operates.

The field of social cognition addresses how people process information and make judgments through "cognitive schemas." A schema is a cluster of facts, information, and experiences that organizes how we perceive and remember the world around us. The processing of information through schemas is influenced by our prejudices, belief systems, basic ways of thinking, and internalized narrative plots. For example, we may make a quick judgment about the effectiveness of a program for aggressive juveniles by utilizing information from social stereotypes about aggressive boys and social programs with which we're familiar.

In other words, we make quick associations from experience and repeated experience with something gives it the aura of truth. We then tend to "script," or direct, situations from our expectations, which makes us selectively attend to only certain aspects. It also affects what we remember and have available for retrieval. Leading or suggestive comments tend to influence this process and reform our memory, especially if we find them acceptable. So do pre-existing expectations.

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