Watching too many TV crime dramas distorts viewers’ perception of the real world

VIENNA, Austria — Binging television crime dramas can alter how the audience views those situations in the real world, a new study finds. Researchers in Vienna say one in five people who constantly watch American crime shows believe the death penalty is still a form of punishment their justice system uses, even if they live in a country where lawmakers abolished it.

Millions of people around the world watch and re-watch popular television shows like “Law and Order” or “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” without realizing they contain many myths and prejudices, the researchers add. While some content, like the death penalty, may ring true in the United States, it does not necessarily translate in other parts of the world. Study authors from Austria discovered die-hard viewers could temporarily struggle to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

“Human beings are constantly saving information in their memory, even when watching television,” says study author Benedikt Till from MedUni Vienna’s Centre for Public Health in a university release. “Unfortunately, we forget relatively quickly where this information came from.”

American crime television shows portray the U.S. justice system, where the death penalty remains is a relatively common form of punishment for the most serious crimes in certain states. Replicating a study carried out in 2016, the researchers surveyed a large sample of the Austrian population about the death penalty.

The survey questions suggested capital punishment was still is use in Austria, even though the country abolished the practice in 1968. For example, participants asked “How many prisoners do you think are currently sitting on death row in Austria?” or “How many prisoners do you think have been executed by lethal injection in Austria in the last five years?”

TV misconceptions are rising

In the first study, 11 percent of respondents answered at least one question without realizing they were being misled. That rose to 18 percent in the second study. Researchers find watching U.S. crime shows was one of the primary reasons people in the European nation did not realize the death penalty is no longer in use. The more shows people watched, the more likely they were to think Austria was still giving out the death penalty.

“The effect that such a high number of respondents gave incorrect answers about the existence of the death penalty in Austria is evidently due to the consumption of US-American films and TV series,” Dr. Till reports.

Do other genres confuse viewers the same way?

This remained true after the researchers accounted for other factors including gender, age, and education. Moreover, the study finds watching other shows on television did not have the same effect on answers. However, the confusion surrounding their country’s justice system could also be temporary.

“People who watch a lot of US crime shows save a lot of information about the justice system and the use of the death penalty in the USA,” Dr. Till explains. “Then they can easily be temporarily confused when answering ad hoc questions about the death penalty in Austria.”

In the U.S., a previous study suggests that Americans crime dramas in prime time also contribute to the rising number of gun crimes throughout the country.

The findings appears in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

South West News Service writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.