By Barbara Jaquish
A University of Arkansas researcher has found that most people don’t identify fugitives or missing children from photographs. Working with fellow researchers, UA psychology professor James Lampinen has determined that even when there is a promise of financial reward, most people don’t connect the dots between the face in a photograph and the actual person, even when the photograph has been aged progresse
Spotting Wanted Fugitives
Working with colleagues Jack D. Arnal and Jason L. Hicks, Lampinen discovered that when asked to be on the lookout for a fugitive, only a small percentage of participants in his studies spotted the wanted man or woman, even with the promise of a financial reward.
In the first study, using basic research and theory on prospective memory to better understand searches for wanted fugitives, the researchers conducted a series of field experiments to test prospective person memory.
When people look at a photo of a wanted person or a missing child in order to spot that individual in the future, they are engaged in prospective person memory.
One set of field experiments used undergraduate students in introductory psychology classes to identify a wanted person. In each scenario, students were shown photos, told the individuals depicted would appear at some point in their daily lives and offered a share in a $100 reward for spotting the “fugitive.” For all scenarios, the identification rate was low.
“One thing that real-life cases have going for them is that there are many more eyes,” Lampinen said. “You may have thousands who have seen the photo of a fugitive, so a 1 percent identification rate is still 10 people.”
In the first experiment, students studied the photo of a wanted person during one class session. The next time the class met, 48 hours later, the individual they had seen in the photo stepped into the classroom carrying a stack of papers and drew attention to himself both before and after handing the stack to the instructor. For the participating classes, the identification rate varied between zero and 7 percent.
To make the field experiment more realistic, the researchers showed classes a mock TV news report with clear photos of two individuals wanted in a bank robbery. When the class met again two days later, the wanted fugitives, who looked very much in person as they had in the photos, sat outside the classroom door conducting a bake sale.
To increase the chances of noticing the bake sale, researchers e-mailed half of the students a two-for-one coupon for cookies. The identification rate remained low, although those students who had received the cookie coupons identified the “bank robbers” 6.67 percent of the time as compared with 2.47 percent for the other students.
“The studies described above suggest that the ability of the general public to correctly identify wanted fugitives in realistic real world conditions is quite limited. In no study that we have conducted has the identification rate exceeded 7 percent,” the researchers wrote.
In their ongoing research, Lampinen and colleagues are exploring how to get people to take the time needed to form implementation intentions when presented with a photo of a missing or wanted person. For example, an implementation intention could involve resolving to contact authorities upon seeing a certain face.
“The potential combination of implementation intentions with imaging and pictorial encoding of faces holds great promise for the study of person prospective memory,” the researchers wrote.
Searching For Missing Kids
When a child goes missing, law enforcement agencies often digitally alter old photos to show how the child might have aged. In one of the first laboratory studies to test the effectiveness of these photographs, Lampinen and his colleagues came away with troubling findings and more questions for an ongoing study of computerized age progression.
Their initial research found that the photos did not improve recognition of children’s faces.
“The good news was that in all three situations tested, people were able to spot the child’s face at a rate better than chance, with or without seeing the age progression photos,” Lampinen said. “This suggests that people have an intuition about age progression.”
Lampinen, Arnal and Hicks conducted a series of laboratory exercises in which participants were asked to imagine that four children had gone missing several years ago. They were shown photos of the children that had been age-progressed from a photo taken at age 7 to what the child might look like at age 12. Later they were asked to identify the children from a photo line-up using actual photographs of the 12-year-old child.
Seeing age-progressed photos did not lead to better identification of the children, findings the researchers called troubling, since in many cases a current photo of a missing child is not available.
This study is an initial look at age progression and is part of a larger ongoing program of research aimed at improving the chances of recovering missing individuals. Noting that this study focused on only one age progression, from age 7 to age 12, the researchers suggested that success of the technique “may depend crucially on how much the pictures are age progressed, as well as the starting points and end points of the age progression and the particular age progression techniques used.” The researchers also noted the importance of examining children of different races and ethnicities. The research team plans to address these issues in future studies.
Barbara Jaquish is science and research communications officer at the University of Arkansas.