While understanding the physical characteristics and trends of lost people is important to a search coordinator, it is also vital that some understanding of the psychological aspects of their behaviour is utilised during the planning stage. 

As per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there are some basic physiological requirements of all humans such as food, water, sleep and homeostasis. Because humans are social creatures we tend to perform best when in company, feeding of each other’s strengths and providing mutual support.  Lost people are suddenly taken away from this support base and thrust into, very often, an unfamiliar environment with little preparation.

Jim Whitehead

Coupled with this sudden isolation are the large number of phobias that characteristically follow humans, the fear of being alone, the fear of animals, the fear of suffering, the fear of the dark and the fear of death. The combination of some or all of these phobias generally results in a lost person making little or no effort to aid in their own survival or location.

Of equal importance is the lost person’s state of health, physical and mental, and while illness and conditions such as diabetes and hypertension have an effect, of more significance is the person’s biological cycle, in particular where they are within that cycle. This is different from the circadian cycle, and with female’s falls in line with the regular hormonal cycle of menstruation, on those days of menstruation they are often at their lowest survival ebb, limiting any serious attempt at self-help.  Men also have a similar cycle, although it is much harder to detect, those in long term heterosexual relationships tend to follow the same high and lows as their partners.

Other mental aspects include the survival of a traumatic event in the past, disease or being lost previously, which provides endurance experiences from which to draw upon.  A little explored feeling, abandonment, has also been identified as a major obstacle for lost people, those believing they have been abandoned tending to limit their activities towards self-help.  Paradoxical undressing, most commonly associated with hypothermia, is another aberration that occurs among lost persons with no logical explanation.

This update was kindly provided by Jim Whitehead, State Search and Rescue Coordinator & Training Officer for QLD Police Service, who presented ‘The Behaviour of Lost People; How Psychology of a Person Can Help or Hinder the Searcher’ at the 2017 Australian & New Zealand Search and Rescue Conference. 

Secure your seat to the 2018 Australian & New Zealand Search and Rescue Conference this May here.

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