Missing Children: Up the Odds They'll Find Yours

When you're snapping away, playing paparazzi to your toddler's every laugh and smile, you're probably not thinking about the photos you'd give to police if (god forbid) your child ever went missing. But you should.

A psychologist at Mississippi State University has spent the last year studying how well adults recognize a child's face under different appearances. See, when a child goes missing or is abducted, parents typically dig out the recent school portrait or happy family shot. But abducted children are not happy and smiling. They are abused, dirty, bruised, sad, and/or angry.

If you bumped into that child in the grocery store or gas station, would you be able to pick her out?


To find this out, assistant psychology professor Vicki S. Gier asked 88 adults to look at two types of pictures: children in school-type photos, along with photos of the same children appearing dirty and distressed. Then the adults were asked to pick out the actual children from the different photos--after 10 minutes, three weeks, six weeks and 12 weeks. The result?

"If an adult sees a picture of a child who is clean and at a later time sees another picture of the same child with the same appearance, then recognition is good," Gier says. "Likewise, if they see a picture of a child with a dirty face and later sees the same child with the dirty face, recognition is also good. However, if the child appears very differently between their original appearance and the later appearance, recognition is poor."

Bottom line: Have both types of pictures (clean and dirty) available in case your child goes missing. The chances that you'll ever need to use them are slim, but at least you'll know you'll boost the chances of your child being recognized by the public and eyewitnesses.

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