Good Question: How well do you remember a missing face?

May 13, 2019 09:20 AM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — We've had a lot of missing people in our area lately, but after you see their photos on the news, billboards, or on your phone, how good is your memory to spot them in public?

Pat Taney put some people to the test in part one of a two-part series.


News10NBC had four volunteers come to News10NBC last week. They were only told we needed them for an experiment, nothing else. We wanted to know if they could spot a man who we said was missing.

Our volunteers watched a portion of a pre-recorded mock newscast. The top story was about a missing man named Brian Lechliter, who was not really missing. He's a promotions producer at News10NBC and agreed to play along.

We showed his photo, gave a description, including a car and license plate. Like a typical newscast, they then saw more unrelated stories.

Moments later, we went across the street to a cafe.

Taney: Do you guys notice anything here? 

Michelle Le Brun: It's busy?

Our missing person was about 100 feet away from them, sitting at a table. He also walked right by them when they were in line waiting for coffee.

Pat asked the group again.

They didn't see him until some of them realized that this may be the test they were asked to come in to do.

"I'm looking for the missing guy," Stacy Senecal said. 

"I think you're on to something, Stacy," Bill Turturro said.

"Is the missing guy in here? " Le Brun asked.

That triggered their memory.

"I feel like that maybe him over there," Michael DeRosa said as he pointed to our missing man.

Some noticed him, but they said it was only after they knew to be on the lookout.

Taney: Did you notice him when you walked in?

Le Brun: No. I didn't even notice him.

Lechliter: At one point I walked over to you and grabbed napkins.

De Rosa: It wasn't on my mind to look for a missing person. I was focused on my coffee order.

Senecal: You know what, I was. I really was. I thought they're probably going to have the missing guy at the cafe but even then, I looked around and I didn't see him.

Taney: You guys had the benefit of being tested moments after seeing his picture. Let's say we were to ask you tomorrow,  would you have recognized him?

Le Brun: I don't even know, I would say probably not.

Turturro: I would say definitely not.

Taney: Why is that? 

Turturro: Information overload. We get bombarded with a lot each day.

Le Brun, who has kids, says it's difficult to retain all of that information. 

"It's hard to be present with everything," she said.

Clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Tanya Grace is with Rochester Regional Health. She was not surprised our group did not immediately pick out the missing person. She says memory is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to missing persons alerts.

"It significantly varies for multiple reasons," Grace said. "One is they are usually sitting in their living rooms, or wherever they are watching, maybe on their phones. How many distractions are around? Are they actually ensuring someone is looking at the pictures for 20 full seconds? Doubtful in most cases." 

Grace said had these people known beforehand that they had to be on the lookout, it would have changed the results.

"They are not forcibly paying attention enough in the moment in order to encode the information properly and recall it later on," she said.

The group did remember the car we told them about, picking it out in a parking lot later on. There was some confusion over the color.

In the end, our group says the experiment opened their eyes a bit.

Taney: After this whole experiment, are you thinking to yourself maybe I should pay more attention to a missing persons report?

Le Brun: Yes, absolutely.

Our story does not end here. This panel told us what would help them remember a missing person -- what us in the media and agencies can do to make the stories more impactful. We take that advice to those leading the charge to help find missing people in our area. Will their tips change the way missing persons cases are handled?

We'll tackle that part of the story next Monday on News10NBC Today

WEB EXTRA: Watch our full interview with clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Tanya Grace.


Pat Taney

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