Fooled and aware of it

We are easily fooled by fiction. Even when we know something is fiction, we tend to think it also applies to real life. After reading this article from The Economist, I was reminded how much influence TV have on people’s world view.

The article is about the television drama “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”. People watching the show think they understand how forensic science works, when they don’t. CSI is partially based on “real science”, for example they use DNA to identify suspect. But the parallel with reality stops here. How those methods are depicted is complete fiction.

In 2005, I worked on an Automated Fingerprint Identification System. It is used by police forces around the world. It works very differently from what’s showed on television. Identifying people by their fingerprints is a slow and labour intensive process. Technology helps, but most of the work it still done by humans. It takes weeks to look for a matching suspect in the database, and that’s if the suspect is in the database. Most of the time he’s not.

In the excellent book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion there’s a paragraph explaining how an actor playing a doctor in the TV series appeared in a drug adverts. People knew he was an actor, and yet the viewers were fooled. They believed that he had some authority on the subject, like a real doctor. They associated the guy with his role.

You can’t really blame TV and the medias for that. They have to be entertaining. Waiting 2 weeks to get a result from the lab is not exactly fun. When things are fast, it’s fun, it’s engaging.

We’re fooled by fiction, and we know it. Our brain simply hasn’t made the link. Just by stepping back a little bit and think about things we could act much more rationally.