To main content
  1. Research

Positive feelings: a key driver in locating missing persons

Written on
Positive feelings: a key driver in locating missing persons

A non-Western boy, white woman, or older man. Our society differentiates between missing persons. For example, white, female victims (and children) receive proportionally more media attention than other missing people, known as the 'missing white woman syndrome'. We do not know whether the characteristics of missing persons play a role in how helpful members of the public are. Research by the Netherlands Police Academy shows that this is not the case. What does affect willingness to help: how people feel.

Researchers from the Netherlands Police Academy presented made-up missing person reports (without a photo) to 675 people. The victims differed in sex (male/female) and origin (Western/non-Western). The reports also stated whether the police would look for this person (yes/no). Researchers looked into whether these victim characteristics affected people's willingness to help with the search. That turned out not to be the case. Participants were slightly more willing to help a female victim than a male victim, but this difference was small. Otherwise, the researchers saw no significant differences.  

Positive feelings are a key driver 

What did affect people's helpfulness, however, was how they felt at that moment. It was striking that positive feelings, such as interest and alertness, were a more important driver to help with the search than negative feelings, such as being anxious or upset. Researcher Jerôme Lam: "From previous research, we knew that in cases of missing persons, people often helped because they felt bad about the case. In general, we know that positive feelings increase willingness to help others in many situations. What’s new is that they also play a clear role in missing persons cases." 

The study therefore has implications for police communications. Investigative reports, such as on the Crimewatch TV programme, often focus on the negative consequences of an event. The police in so doing want to tap into people’s feelings. Such as moral outrage, empathy, compassion, and the willingness to contribute to a safe society. According to this research, positive feelings are another key driver you need to address when help from the public is needed. Lam: "It’s important to note that positive feelings are not about being 'happy'. It means eliciting interest, and alerting or energising people, for example. You have to be able to evoke a lot of different emotions with the missing persons information to get the message across. That makes it interesting for detection communication: it can be positive and negative simultaneously." 

According to Lam, this fits in with the interest in podcasts and TV programmes about policing: "For example, you see a lot of focus on crime programmes and podcasts where you are drawn into a story. Something new and interesting always emerges. You are taken through all the steps. We find that, besides negative feelings of injustice, it also generates positive feelings like an interest in policing. But it should not become a form of entertainment." 

The role of the media 

Because of the excessive media coverage of white, female victims, the researchers had expected bigger differences in the influence of certain victim characteristics on helpfulness. "That makes us wonder whether the choice by the media to portray certain people imposes a kind of filter on who is and is not searched for. That means that the media has to be much more aware that it has a moral responsibility about who it puts on screen: that could make all the difference to what extent a missing person will be searched for," Lam concludes. 

More information 

Not found what you were looking for?

This Netherlands Police Academy website uses cookies to make the website work properly. And to analyze the use of the website. We do this completely anonymously. You agree to this when you click 'accept'. Do you click on 'decline'? Then the website will not place these cookies. 


More information about the use of cookies on can be found in our cookie statement.