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Recovering Missing People via Citizen Sightings

Writers: Dr. Kara Moore and Blake Nesmith

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

One way societies recover missing people is by recruiting citizens to search for them. Authorities and organizations use news alerts, posters, text message notifications, and more to ask the public to help be on the lookout for missing people. These person searches are typically prospective person memory tasks (Lampinen et al., 2008), wherein the searcher has to remember to look for the missing person. Unfortunately, recovering missing people via prospective person memory involves many error-prone steps (Lampinen & Moore, 2016).


Citizen Sightings


Let’s break down the steps to citizen sightings as outlined in our infographic below. The first steps occur when the citizen encounters and attends to a missing person notification. For example, in the United States, notifications for missing, endangered children are sent via text message. Second, the citizen must physically encounter the missing person. This step is largely out of the citizen’s control, though there are tactics that increase the odds of an encounter (e.g., searching). Being in the location of a missing person does not guarantee a sighting because the searcher must attend to their environment to notice the missing person. After this, the citizen must recognize the missing person and decide to contact authorities.


Attention and Memory Failures


The steps concerning the citizen searcher’s attention and memory are error prone. Human attention and memory are fallible and limited in capacity. A person cannot attend to everything in their environment, and people often miss stimuli in their environment that they do not expect to encounter. A classic example is that people fail to notice a person in a gorilla suit walking through a circle of people passing a basketball, when they are asked to count the basketball passes (Simons & Chabris, 1999). Researchers have found that people will fail to notice crimes when they are focused on something else (Hyman et al., 2018). Dr. Kara Moore, the first author of this blog, and others have found that many people will fail to sight a missing person they have been asked to look for less than an hour before, even when they have spoken face-to-face with them (Lampinen, et al., 2015; Lampinen & Moore, 2016; Moore & Lampinen, 2019). We attribute this to attentional failure because the majority of people (typically around 75%) are able to identify the person’s face from a line-up 24 or more hours later (Lampinen et al., 2015; Lampinen & Moore, 2016; Moore & Lampinen, 2019).


How good are citizens at making sightings of missing people?


Mock searches. One way to address this question is through research studies that simulate missing person searches. In missing person search simulations, participants view a missing persons alert. Then, they are informed that the person is not really missing, so that they do not report sightings to police, and are invited to take part in a contest with a cash prize for accurate sightings. Then participants encounter the mock missing person. These studies commonly have the mock missing person be in the hallway of the laboratory so that all searchers physically encounter the mock missing person shortly after seeing the missing person notification (see Moore et al., 2021*). Unfortunately, sighting rates are rather low, typically up to 10-15% (Lampinen & Moore, 2016, Lampinen et al., 2015, Moore et al., 2016). It is important to keep in mind that these simulated searches control some steps, by ensuring they are successful. For example, in many studies researchers ensure searchers have at least one physical encounter with participants. This likely inflates sighting rates as compared to real world searches.


Real world data. Another way to address this question is by examining real world data on missing people recovered via citizen sightings. Unfortunately, this data is often not well documented or released to the public. In the United States, one organization categorizes recoveries but not does not provide data on the number of recoveries that were due to a citizen sighting or that involved a citizen sighting. We could get a better estimate of how many missing persons are recovered via citizen sightings if government and non-profit organizations started collecting, organizing, and reporting this data.


Why are sighting rates so low?


What we know so far is from research studies that have manipulated attention and memory while controlling for all other steps in the process of making a sighting. Estimated sighting rates are low in these studies because of failures in attention and memory. Remember that the attention and memory resources required for a sighting are limited and have to be distributed amongst tasks required for navigating daily life and searching. These resources may be otherwise occupied or the searcher may choose not to devote these resources to searching (Moore et al., 2016). One reason a person may choose not to devote resources to searching is low expectations of their chances of sighting the missing person. Sighting expectations affect sighting rates even when an encounter is guaranteed (Moore et al., 2016; Moore et al., 2018). Ask yourself: Do you expect to have a chance to sight a missing person? If you did, would you be successful?


Conclusion: What should be done about low sighting rates?


Some have advocated for the elimination of missing person search campaigns (Griffin et al., 2007; Miller et al., 2009). Sighting rates of 10-15% are abysmal when considering the odds that an individual citizen makes a sighting, but this framing is not quite right for missing persons searches. A single sighting can lead to a recovery! Based on our lab-based sighting rates, a search with 100 people, could lead to 10-15 sightings! The sighting rate is likely lower in the real world, but the point is that even one sighting could lead to a recovery. Recovery odds increase with increases in sighting rates. Increasing sighting rates is desirable, but low sighting rates do not necessarily indicate that search campaigns are destined to be unsuccessful. A missing persons notification could reach thousands of people which increases the odds of a sighting. A better alternative to eliminating search campaigns is to understand why people perform poorly at this task. Understanding performance will allow researchers to identify variables within the control of the searcher or campaign designers to increase sightings.


*Moore, K. N., Provenzano, A., Erickson, W. B., & Lampinen, J. M. (2021). Methodological considerations in prospective person memory. In A. Smith, M. Toglia, & J.M. Lampinen (Eds.), Methods, measures, and theories in eyewitness identification tasks. CITY: Taylor and Francis.


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Writers: Dr. Kara Moore and Blake Nesmith


Dr. Kara Moore is an Assistant Professor at Oklahoma State University. Her research focuses in on the fallibility of attention and memory in the legal system. She has lines of research in eyewitness memory and person searches. Her work in missing person searches has focused on the role of cognition in the topic of prospective person memory, or how people fulfill the intention to search for a person.

Lab website: https://calmlab.mystrikingly.com/

Personal website: https://www.karamoorephd.com/

Twitter: @moore_psych


Blake Nesmith is a first-year graduate student in the experimental psychology doctoral program at Oklahoma State University. She completed a M.A. in forensic psychology at the University of Central Oklahoma and worked in the aviation industry as a human factors researcher prior to attending Oklahoma State. Her research interest is in the application of psychology to the legal system, with a focus on face recognition and person matching and attention failures.

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