The AMBER Alert system was designed to help rescue missing children. Law enforcement entities release information about the child and the perpetrator through public announcements on television, roadside signs, and the Internet. Citizens are expected to remember the information and report sightings to the police. Although the system has not been well evaluated, a number of social science methods used in other areas (e.g., eyewitness memory research, bystander effect) may be applicable. Concerns have been raised that the program has been overused by the authorities, who issue alerts in nonserious cases, and that alerts are most “effective” when relatively little threat is posed, such as when a child is abducted by a parent.
AMBER Alert and Social Science
The AMBER Alert system makes many assumptions about human behavior that remain untested. The system assumes that individuals have the ability to remember the information presented in the alert and to identify the perpetrator or the child at a later time. Research on cognitive load and exposure duration suggests that brief messages presented while the recipient is busy (e.g., driving a car) may not be acquired, although these notions have not been tested with AMBER Alert messages. Retention failure and memory reconstruction may also make it difficult to properly remember the alert message. Retrieval problems, such as source attribution errors, may also make it difficult for citizens to fulfill their role in the AMBER Alert system. Eyewitness memory research has indicated that individuals are not always able to recognize a face seen before; this can be especially true for faces of another race. These research techniques could be used to test citizens’ ability to become informants.
Social influences and individual differences could affect one’s willingness to report. Informants may feel that they are too busy to get involved with an investigation, or they could decide that because other citizens will report the sighting, there is no need for them to report (i.e., the bystander effect). The people around informants could doubt their memory, influencing them not to report. On the other hand, the high severity of a crime may make informants more likely to report. Gender, race, and past experiences with the police have also been shown to affect one’s willingness to help. Although these studies were not conducted using AMBER Alert as a framework, they may suggest avenues for future study.
There is also concern that AMBER alerts will lead to “AMBER fatigue,” a phenomenon in which individuals stop paying attention to the alerts because they have seen so many of them. There is also concern that the great number of alerts could lead to a heightened level of public fear and to perceptions that abductions are more common than they actually are, as suggested by research on the availability heuristic and social construction of fear by the media. Alternately, the presence of the AMBER Alert system could convince people that the system is deterring abductions; this could lead to a reduction in the perceived need for prevention programs. Stories of abductions by strangers (which AMBER Alert was designed to address) may lead to a neglect of the more frequent problem of abductions by family members. Counterfactual thinking and hindsight bias can affect perceptions of the system: A rescue after an alert was issued or a child’s death after a failure to issue an alert may seem like inevitable outcomes, thus bolstering the system’s perceived effectiveness.
Finally, AMBER alerts can affect perpetrators. It is possible that alerts can deter criminals or encourage them to return the child safely. It is, however, also possible that they will encourage copycat abductions by publicity-seeking criminals. Seeing an alert could also lead a criminal to kill and dispose of the child more quickly than he or she had planned.
AMBER Alert Research
A few researchers have attempted to test the effectiveness of the system. An examination of 233 AMBER alerts issued in 2004 revealed that, despite the intention of focusing AMBER alerts on only serious abduction cases (which generally involve strangers), 50% of the alerts studied involved familial abductions, another 20% involved hoaxes or confusions, and only 30% actually involved abduction by strangers. The researchers recommended stricter adherence to the restrictive issuance criteria recommended by the U.S. Department of Justice to avoid overuse of the system.
There has also been one attempt to determine how effective AMBER Alert is in accomplishing its key goal, which is saving abducted children’s lives in the worst cases (often called “stereotypical” abductions). The researchers found that, despite claims by some practitioners that AMBER alerts have helped rescue hundreds of children, successful recovery is most likely when the victim is abducted by a parent and least likely when the child is abducted by a stranger. Since prior research has shown that most children abducted by parents are not harmed (regardless of whether an alert was issued or not), researchers questioned the effectiveness of alerts and their ability to “save” lives.
In addition to these issues, there might be obstacles to AMBER alerts routinely functioning as intended. For practical reasons, it is very difficult to learn of an abduction and issue an alert within the small, critical window of opportunity that exists in the worst cases. Despite the reasonableness of insisting that AMBER alerts only be issued in serious scenarios, there is an inherent dilemma in determining the level of threat actually posed when a child is missing and might or might not have been abducted.
- Griffin, T., Miller, M. K., Hammack, R., Hoppe, J., & Rebideaux, A. (2007). A preliminary examination of AMBER Alert’s effects. Criminal Justice Policy Review.
- Hargrove, T. (2005). False alarms endangering future of Amber Alert system. New York: Scripps Howard News Service.
- Miller, M. K., & Clinkinbeard, S. S. (2006). Improving the AMBER Alert system: Psychologyresearch and policy recommendations. Law and Psychology Review, 30, 1-21.
- Miller, M. K., Griffin, T., Clinkinbeard, S. S., & Thomas, R. M. (2006, April). The psychology of AMBER Alert: Unresolved issues and policy implications. Paper presented at the Western Social Science Association Conference, Phoenix, AZ.
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