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Three things TV crime dramas get wrong – and why you should care

April 22, 2010

You’re walking along a public street, calm and relaxed, and all of a sudden a red flag goes up. You feel uncomfortable.

You become more cautious and act more carefully. Your fight or flight instinct wakes up with a jolt of adrenalin and gets you ready for action.

What happened?

old television with broken screen

Something in your environment triggered the red flag. You saw something or heard something that registered in your mind as something that could be a precursor to danger. You responded to an environmental clue.

We all have a set of environmental clues stored away in our minds. They are indispensable memories that trigger red flags and prepare us for danger.

The source of those memories, therefore, plays a critical part in our personal safety.

So where do we learn about environmental clues?


That’s right. We base our very real assessment of danger on scenes that television writers dream up around a table of laptops, coffee and Chinese take-out.

To be fair, not all of us fall into this trap. Some of us grew up in bad parts of town and maybe still live there. They are the people who know the real deal. Most of us, however, are left with CSI and other crime dramas from the entertainment industry.

The problem here is obvious.

CSI and CSI Miami are watched by tens of millions of people every week. But the crime scenes depicted in both programs misrepresent the reality of crime, and if your environmental clues are derived even in part from watching those shows, you will not be skilled at recognizing the clues of real danger.

Let’s break this down: Researchers at the Mayo Clinic took the time to compare CSI and CSI Miami crime scenes with real crimes. Real crime was misrepresented in a number of ways, but three factors in particular stood out:

  1. The television shows most often represent the perpetrator as a stranger, when the majority of violent crime victims know the perpetrator to some degree.
  2. The shows don’t reference intoxication, when alcohol and drugs are significant contributors to violent crime.
  3. The shows most often represent both the perpetrator and the victim as Caucasian, when the racial mix is actually much more diverse.

What does this mean in the context of environmental clues? It means we have to adjust to reality.

Yes, you can be attacked by a random, deranged stranger. But it’s more likely that you’ll be attacked by someone you know, who has been drinking or doing drugs. And race has nothing to do with it.

Here are two obvious scenarios familiar to the college crowd that contain real environmental clues:

  1. During or after a college party, when the crowd is thinning, people are walking home, and you’ve interacted socially with many people.
  2. In areas full of bars, where bar crawls are frequent and people bump into one another weekend after weekend.

You can add your own. Just remember, your environmental clues must match the reality of crime. CSI may be entertaining, but it won’t keep you safe.

Study source: Mayo Clinic (2009, May 22). Popular Television Shows Inaccurately Portray Violent Crime, Researchers Find. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 22, 2010, from­ /releases/2009/05/090519134835.htm


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