Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The C.S.I. Syndrome

The Power of Perception

In an experiment in 1992 by Victoria Holst and Kathy Pezdek on juries and scripts, they questioned subjects to determine popular beliefs about common scenarios, such as a convenience store robbery. The "scripts" proved to be widely shared among the subjects about how a criminal cases a store, acts inside the store, uses a gun to demand money, and drives away in a getaway vehicle. The second stage of the research was to expose the same subjects to a mock trial of such a robbery in which most aspects of a typical script were played out, but some key elements were missing: The robber did not case the store, use a gun, or take money. Nevertheless, when asked to describe the trial afterward, the subjects "remembered" these very elements. The implication is that prior ideas and beliefs blend with actual events when we're making sense of familiar situations for recall. We are trained by our exposure and culture to expect a certain situation and we rely on scripts to fill in gaps in our memory. In other words, we create material to make a story work.

Thomas Kida urges us not to trust our judgments as much as we do, because we have a tendency to make cognitive errors. Among them are looking for things to confirm our ideas, preferring stories to statistics, trusting our memories as if memory provides a video-recording of our experiences, and seeing more in coincidences than is actually there. In addition, we tend to diagnose a situation, and once that momentum gets going, it's difficult to stop to listen to anything that contradicts it. This is especially true with story frames.

We use narratives in the form of stories to give events a point or to use them for effect on an audience. Stories aim for verisimilitude, or the feeling that "this is the way it happened." In the courtroom, the jury is told a story. In fact, they hear competing stories and must decide on the one that most satisfies them. The court is set up as an adversarial system in which one side represents a defendant with a story that casts that person in a framework that tends to excuse or exonerate him/her; the other side finds a frame that emphasizes culpability. Each side wants to "win," and each has the task of creating a narrative that will most convince the decision-makers.

At the end of a case, the summations, or closing arguments, present an uninterrupted narrative on each side and there is little doubt that the courtroom intersects with social narratives that influence how both stories are received. We have evidence that jurors come to trial with a set of stock stories into which they fit the presented evidence.

Pennington and Hastie indicate that the structure of a story can facilitate a transition in the minds of jury members from specific evidence to the "gist" of a story, or the "reference frame." They found that mock jurors were more strongly influenced by evidence presented in story form than merely as a rote recitation of facts, especially where the issues were complicated. Evidence presented ambiguously gets a spin in the direction of the story frame. If a given story felt implausible, then the alternate story looked more believable.

Thus, good storytelling confers an advantage to evidence that supports the reference frame, making it more readily available when it comes time to make a decision.