Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Voluntary missing person motivation

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Voluntary missing person motivation:
Why do some people voluntarily go missing?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Case study

Not only did the 9/11 attacks bring great tragedy, it also brought with it an opportunity for many individuals to go missing. For example, a female doctor, Sneha Anne Philip, was a "hero" during the attacks, as her brother spoke to her on the phone whilst she attempted to save those who had become injured. She was also a doctor, a wife, and had an active social life. However, behind closed doors, as investigators soon uncovered, her marriage was falling apart, she was suspended from her job due to alcohol and drug issues, and even faced a night in jail due to a false report of an incident, and she was involved in lesbian love affairs. Evidence from security footage showed her inside her apartment lobby moments before the attacks, depicting what looked like Sneha standing in front of the elevator door without going inside, and then she left the building. As investigators learnt more about Sneha it became more suspicious and unlikely that she had been involved in the 9/11 attacks, that her brother had lied about their phone call, revealing that she had not in fact helped save anyone, and there was no evidence to suggest she was at the scene at all. With her marriage breakdown, secret love affairs, job insecurity and pending criminal charges, this would be reason enough to go missing. With a tragedy such as 9/11 resulting in high mortality rates, this would be a perfect disguise for an individuals[grammar?] disappearance. There have been several other reports of similar suspected missing persons. To this day, Sneha is officially the 2751st victim of the 9/11 attacks. If you wished to leave your life behind and start afresh, would you take this opportunity, just as Sneha supposedly did? (Jolly, 2018).

Figure 1: The 9/11 attacks not only brought great tragedy, but also brought with it an opportunity for many to disappear without any questions asked.

Around 607 people are suspected to go missing everyday around the world (Scoop Independent News, 2013). A missing person is someone who is reported missing to the police and their whereabouts are unknown, and there is concern in regards to their safety and well-being (AFP, 2017b). However, this definition is inadequate to account for those who voluntarily go missing, as opposed to those who are coerced or abducted (Stevenson & Thomas, 2018). A voluntary missing person, or someone who intentionally goes missing, is an individual who decides to leave, without informing family, loved ones or close affiliates of their whereabouts (Biehal, Mitchell, & Wade, 2003; Bricknell, 2017). The literature suggests that the majority of missing persons are voluntary, and this decision was either planned or sudden (Stevenson, Parr, Woolnough, & Fyfe, 2013). According to multiple case files from adults who were previously missing, the highest percentage of those chose to go missing (64%), as opposed to unintentionally missing (16%) (Biehal et al., 2003).

Motivational theories can help to explain why someone would voluntarily go missing. Whether that is due to an aversive environment they are involved in, an appealing reward they must run towards, run away in order to satisfy their psychological needs, or they were engaged in insecure attachment relationships[grammar?][Rewrite to improve clarity].

The purpose of this chapter is to provide information about missing persons, and identify the motivations and reasons behind why someone would go voluntarily missing.

What is a voluntary missing person?[edit | edit source]

Figure 2: Around 607 people are suspected to go missing everyday around the world[when?].

Bonny and colleagues (2016) suggest that there are three types of reasons that adults go missing:

  1. Dysfunctional: includes any individuals suffering from mental health issues.
  2. Escape: those who believe that escape is their way of escaping adverse environments, and gaining their own independence.
  3. Unintentional: describes those who did not mean to go missing, who are lost or who have memory problems.

Biehal and colleagues (2003) have designed a "missing person continuum" in order to define all variations of missing persons. The continuum ranges from unintentional, all the way to intentional. Unintentional includes those who do not intend to go missing, such as those who are abducted, coerced to leave, those who become lost, and those who suffer from mental illness such as dementia. Intentional are those individuals who voluntarily went missing, either to escape or avoid an aversive environment, to run towards something pleasurable or positive, or due to personality traits. Gibb and Woolnough (as cited in Bonny, Almond, & Woolnough, 2016) developed a profiling booklet for the United Kingdom's police to differentiate between the four types of missing persons:

  1. lost person
  2. voluntarily missing
  3. missing person under the influence
  4. missing person due to accident/illness/injury.

Incidence[edit | edit source]

There are currently no worldwide statistics or dedicated websites for missing persons globally. However, INTERPOL is working towards creating a database for missing persons and unidentified bodies in order to collate this information on an international level (INTERPOL, n.d.). Around 607 people are suspected to go missing everyday around the world (Scoop Independent News, 2013).

Table 1. Statistics of missing persons by country
<18 years old >18 years old Total Population estimate
USA Female 246,108 76,757 322,865 167,024,900
USA Male 218,143 110,127 328,270 162, 850,780
UK Female 65,500 31,331 96,831 33,539,988
UK Male 56,821 48,950 105,771 32,535,801
AUS Female N/A N/A 12,001 12,661,435
AUS Male N/A N/A 12,502 12,580,782
Figure 3: Incidence of missing person reports by country. Note: definition of missing persons and likelihood of reporting may vary across countries. Population estimates retrieved from Country Meters ( Other statistics retrieved from: (James, Anderson, & Putt, 2008; NCIC, 2017; NCA, 2017; AFP, 2017a). Read more

Motivations for going voluntarily missing[edit | edit source]

Figure 4: "The Missing Persons Continuum" by Abbey Frame. Adapted from Biehal, Mitchell and Wade's original "The Missing Continuum" (2003).

[Provide more detail]

Motivational[edit | edit source]

Homer (as cited in Sharlin & Mor-Barak, 1992) proposed an approach for motivation to run away from home. This is characterised by two distinct motives:

  1. Running from: Problems at home, school, with peers
  2. Running to: Friends, romantic partners

This approach stems from the basic motivational theory that all humans strive to fulfill physiological, psychological and social needs, and avoid negative experiences that will affect satiety of these needs. This may be linked to self-determination theory (see below).

Running from or avoidance[edit | edit source]

(Crosland, Joseph, Slattery, Hodges, & Dunlap, 2018)[say what?]

It was found in Singapore that 60% of runaway youth under the age of 16 were female. A related issue and reason for girls to run away could be teen pregnancies and abortion (Khong, 2009). Coco and Courtney (1998) have found a correlation between youth runaway and thrill-seeking during tough times, as well as a search for self-identity. Family dynamics along with adolescent’s[grammar?] developmental processes are two reasons under the developmental/structural model for examining youth runaway behaviour (Crespi & Sabatelli, 1993; Coco & Courtney, 1998). These in combination lead the adolescent to individuate and strive to gain autonomy by running away from the family home (Coco & Courtney, 1998).

Social supports

Social interactions or aversive environments create negative feelings for youth, which motivates them to avoid or escape these negative social supports or interactions. When youth do not receive what they want from the social interactions, this motivates them to escape or run away (Crosland et al., 2018).


Youth run away in order to escape aversive, hostile or restrictive situations. Not only is the environment hostile, but it reduces the youth's sense of normalcy, independence and autonomy (Crosland, et al., 2018).

Running to or access[edit | edit source]

(Crosland et al., 2018)[say what?]

Khong (2009) believes that youth runaways may be linked to other delinquent behaviours, including gang activities and shoplifting. Along with this, family instability, financial difficulties and psychosocial stress from disrupted or single-parent families, parental rejection, family violence, separation or divorce, conflictual home conditions, lack of communication, sibling rivalry and lack of care may be other contributing factors (Khong, 2009).

Barth (1986) identifies three categories of runaway youth. These include:

  1. Family strain due to a crisis
  2. High expectations held by parents and parental control
  3. Physical or sexual abuse

Social supports

A youth's well-being and sense of self is influenced largely by family connections. They interact with, and have emotional support from a loved one, whether that be parents, family, teachers, caregivers or partners. They may run towards these sources of social interaction, and consequently leave their life behind and go missing (Crosland, et al., 2018).


Youth living in foster care generally wish to engage in activities and gain independence like typical youth do, such as go shopping with friends, go to school dances or attend sporting games. It also involves the individual gaining autonomy and independence, and establish peer relationships. A reason for running away may be because an individual wishes to feel like a "normal" person their age, and engage in these normal types of activities, which they were potentially restricted from before (Crosland, et al., 2018).

Self-determination theory:[edit | edit source]

Figure 5: Deci and Ryans'[grammar?] self-determination theory.

Deci and Ryans'[grammar?] (2011) self-determination theory argues that, for individuals to function efficiently, three basic psychological needs must be satisfied, namely autonomy, competence and relatedness.  Autonomy is defined as an organismic approval of one’s actions that comes from within the self (Deci & Ryan, 1987). Competence refers to an[changed word] individual’s effective interaction with the environment, as well as overcoming[edited word] challenges and improve skills (White, 1959). Finally, relatedness involves the desire to interact with others and to feel connected, and to[added word] be able to give and receive love (Talley, Kocum, Schlegel, Molix, & Bettencourt, 2012). This theory could be used to explain the motivation behind why someone voluntarily goes missing.

Autonomy[edit | edit source]

In terms of autonomy, Deci and Ryan (1987) have found that parents and teachers who are restrictive and controlling are not autonomy-supportive, therefore the individual is not intrinsically motivated to accomplish their goals[deleted word]. Intrinsic motivation is defined as the inherent inclination to achieve goals, seek out opportunities, to learn and to grow (Ryan & Deci, 2000). This is a choice that comes from within, that is not driven by external forces. If the people and environment surrounding the individual is not autonomy supportive, then they may feel as though going missing is their only option in order to satisfy their autonomy psychological need. In essence, they are running away from the situation that is obstructing them from fulfilling their needs, as well as running towards an opportunity to become more autonomous.

Competence[edit | edit source]

An individual is driven to achieve competence as one of the basic psychological needs. If the environment is not able to provide enough challenge and opportunities to improve their skills, then this will create tension and potentially boredom[deleted word] for younger children and youth (Deci & Ryan, 1987). This motivation to find stimulating activities may push the individual to run away from the uninspiring environment and go missing to find these new opportunities and challenges.

Relatedness[edit | edit source]

If home life for the individual is not meeting relatedness needs, such that no interactions with others are made and no connectedness felt (Deci & Ryan, 1987), then this may motivate the person to escape the situation in order to find this relatedness. This may be the[deleted word] case of a youth running to peers to seek friendship or intimacy with a partner, or an adult who is not satisfied with their marriage may run away to engage in an affair. In the extreme case of violence or abuse within the home, the individual may need to escape or avoid this aversive situation in order to fulfil this psychological need.

Attachment theory:[edit | edit source]

It has been found that the parent-child relationship is an important risk-factor for a child to run away (Ijaz & Mahmood, 2012) For example, harsh parenting has an influence over a child's self-worth. Tavecchio, Thomeer and Meeus (1999) believe that a deep rooted psychological problem causes youth to run away. Bowlby’s Attachment theory concerns the parent-child relationship and how this influences development of the child (Bretherton, 1992). Satisfaction of the child’s basic psychological needs is also an important factor for the parent-child attachment relationship (Stein, Milburn, Zane, & Rotheram-Borus, 2009). A secure attachment protects against antisocial tendencies, hostility and other emotional problems (Koback as cited in Stein et al., 2009). An insecure attachment has been considered a significant antecedent for problem behaviour and youth running away from home (Stein et al., 2009; Tavecchio et al., 1999). Insecure attachments may result in a lack of trust for the caregiver, and will eventually generalise to other social interactions (Tavecchio et al., 1999). Tavecchio and colleagues (1999) found that an insecure attachment in the past was a significant risk-factor for youth runaways. Similarly, Stein and associates (2009) found that a secure attachment relationship had protective factors for youth delinquency and distress, such as running away. Therefore, it is important to prevent youth runaway and voluntary missing persons by ensuring children have secure attachments with their caregivers.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs[edit | edit source]

Figure 6: Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, one must have their physiological, safety and security, and therefore love and belonging needs satisfied (Maslow, 1943). Their physiological needs include the fulfilment of basic needs, such as having enough water, food and shelter (Maslow, 1943). Safety and security needs include security of employment, resources, family, health and property (Maslow, 1943). Love and belonging is third in the hierarchy of needs, as a need to belong and be loved is important to a persons[grammar?] self-concept and wellbeing (Maslow, 1943). If each level of needs are not met in succession, then a person may suffer from illness (physical or mental) (Maslow, 1943). The environment or people surrounding them may not be able to provide these needs, so an option may be for the individual to flee. Maslow's theory may help to account for why people go voluntarily missing. For example, if an individual feels that their employment may be at risk, their house and belongings are not secure, or their family is not safe, they may choose to go missing and change their identity in order to protect these things. If a person's love and belonging needs are threatened, due to abuse or violence, then the person may believe that running away from the aversive person or environment is necessary.

Other reasons for going voluntarily missing[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Other reasons[edit | edit source]

  • The AFP (2017c) present some causes for why a person may go missing: misadventure, domestic violence, mental illness, victim of crime
  • The AFP (2017c) suggest "at risk" groups for going missing: those suffering from a mental illness, the elderly, youth or children, those at risk of suicide, those with intellectual or physical disabilities.
  • Other reasons include relationship breakdown and escaping issues (Sowerby & Thomas, 2017)
  • According to Kelty (personal communication, 12 October, 2018), those who choose to go missing believe that this is their last option, and the situation is so extreme and aversive that they would rather give up everything than stay.
  • Adults who are escaping a domestic violence situation are sometimes moved by the state in order to protect the victim. Along with this, those in witness protection may be relocated in order to keep them safe and invisible (S.Kelty, personal communication, 12 October, 2018).
  • Personality: Sharlin and Mor-Barak (1992) argue that children with a lack of control over external events and internal drives are more likely to run away from home than children with control over external influences and internal control. Behaviours that were present within the group who showed low internal control were impulsivity and anger.

Mental illness[edit | edit source]

Figure 7: Mental health disorders are more prevalent among missing persons as compared to the general community.

Forty to eighty percent of those reported missing in the UK were found to have a mental illness (Holmes, 2017). The Geographies of Missing People study interviewed 45 previous missing persons. The majority of the participants reported that they experienced something similar to a mood disorder, many described symptoms of anxiety and depression, and one quarter psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia (Stevenson et al., 2013). Sowerby and Thomas (2017) found that mental health disorders were more prevalent among missing persons as compared to the general community. Substance abuse disorders were abnormally high in missing persons, however further research is needed to discover the specific impact these disorders may have on missing persons (Sowerby & Thomas, 2017). These researchers believe that substance use may be correlated to the spontaneous decision to go missing, due to the substances influence on decision-making and impulsivity (Sowerby & Thomas, 2017).

Are you at risk of becoming a voluntary missing person?[edit | edit source]

WARNING: This quiz may trigger some underlying trauma. If you feel distressed as a result of this quiz, please follow the link: Please do not self diagnose based on the results of this quiz.

1 You feel safe in your home environment.

True - I feel safe at home
False - I don't feel safe at home

2 This statement represents how you feel "I don't feel loved by those closest to me, no one wants me around, I have no friends or anyone to rely on"

True - I don't feel loved or cared for
False - I feel loved and cared for

3 Scenario: You have the 'once-in-a-lifetime' opportunity to run away from home to elope with the most beautiful man/woman, whom you are in love with. This means giving up your family, friends, and career. Do you take it?

Yes, there's no way I'd pass this up!
No way, I would never leave the people I love behind!

Interpret your score:

0/6 = You are not at risk of becoming a voluntary missing person. You belong to a safe, loving environment and feel no need to escape or avoid this. You have fulfilled Maslow's physiological, safety and belonging needs. You don't feel the urge to run towards independence or other appealing rewards.

2/6 = Although you are not at risk of becoming a voluntary missing person, there is an inconsistency within your life. Whether that be an aversive situation you're finding yourself in, a lack of social support or physiological/safety needs, or you don't feel satisfied within your own life and yearn for more.

4/6 = You are nearing towards being at risk of becoming a voluntary missing person. This may be due to the environment you live in, feeling a lack of warmth and belonging from loved ones, or just wanting a fresh start.

6/6 = You are at very high risk of becoming a voluntary missing person. You live in an aversive environment in which you wish to avoid or escape. Your psychological needs are not being me, and if the opportunity presented itself, you would most likely run away to gain the independence you desire.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Voluntary missing persons are a prevalent issue all around the world, with the incidence of missing persons having a significant impact on society. The [what?] literature suggests that there are many reasons and motivations that drive an individual to choose to go missing. Missing person motivations can be understood along a continuum, ranging from intentional to unintentional. Motivations to go voluntarily missing may include escaping an aversive environment, running towards something more appealing, satisfying psychological needs, or due to poor attachment styles from childhood.

Although research about voluntary missing persons is informative, there are limitations. The lack of awareness and resources for voluntary missing persons limits our knowledge about this phenomena, as well prevention and intervention strategies. Not only this, the literature focuses mainly on youth and children, and rarely refers to adults and elderly voluntary missing persons. Motivational theories directly applied to voluntary missing persons are insufficient, and future research should investigate this further[how?].  

Despite the research and knowledge presented in this chapter, more attention needs to be focused on voluntary missing persons as opposed to those who unintentionally go missing. In addition to this, an international statistic[what?] for voluntary missing persons should be found, in addition to a database or website to accommodate worldwide knowledge and research regarding voluntary missing persons. More attention on adult and elderly voluntary missing persons should also be of further consideration.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Australian Federal Police (AFP). (2017a). Myths and facts: A quick guide to the facts on missing persons in Australia. Retrieved from the Missing Persons website: <>.

Australian Federal Police (AFP). (2017b). What is a missing person?. Retrieved from the Missing Persons website: <>.

Australian Federal Police (AFP). (2017c). Why people go missing. Retrieved from the Missing Persons website: <>.

Barth, R. P. (1986). Social and cognitive treatment of children and adolescents. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Biehal, N., Mitchell, F., & Wade, J. (2003). Lost from view: Missing persons in the UK [The Policy Press] Retreived from: <>.

Bonny, E., Almond, L., & Woolnough, P. (2016). Adult missing persons: Can an investigative framework be generated using behavioural themes? Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, 13, 296-312.

Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 28, 759-775.

Bricknell, S. (2017). Missing persons: Who's at risk? (Research Report No. 08). Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Coco, E.L., & Courtney, L.J. (1998). A family systems approach for preventing adolescent runaway behavior. Adolescence, 33(130), 485-496. Retrieved from: <>.

Crespi, T.D., & Sabatelli, R.M. (1993). Adolescent runaways and family strife. A conflict-induced differentiation framework. Adolescence, 28(112), 867-878. Retrieved from <>.

Crosland, K., Joseph, R., Slattery, L., Hodges, S., & Dunlap, G. (2018). Why youth run: Assessing run function to stabilize foster care placement. Children and Youth Services Review, 85, 35-42.

Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2011). Levels of analysis, regnant causes of behavior and well-being: The role of physiological needs. Psychological Inquiry, 22, 17-22.

Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (1987). The support of autonomy and the control of behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(6), 1024-1037. Retrieved from: <>.

Holmes, L. (2017). “I just felt like I was in a cage”: Examining the accounts of returned missing adults with mental health issues. Illness, Crisis & Loss, 25, 5-26.

Ijaz, T., & Mahmood, Z. (2012). Personal construct system of a runaway adolescent: An illustrative case study. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 25, 325-345.

International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL). (n.d.). Database of missing persons and unidentified bodies. Retrieved from INTERPOL website: <>.

James, M., Anderson, J., & Putt, J. (2008). Missing persons in Australia (Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice No.353). Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology. Retrieved from: <>.

Jolly, N. (2018). Sneha Philip: Did doctor use cover of 9/11 to disappear? [Media release]. Retrieved from: <>.

Khong, L.Y.L. (2009). Runaway youths in Singapore: Exploring demographics, motivations, and environments. Children and Youth Services Review, 31, 125-139.

Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.

Missing People. (2018). Missing People publishes latest UK statistics. Retrieved from Missing People website: <>.

National Crime Agency (NCA). (2017). Missing persons data report 2015/2016 [Version 3.3]. Retreived from: <>.

National Crime Information Centre (NCIC). (2018). 2017 NCIC missing person and unidentified person statistics. Retrieved from: <>.

Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67.

Scoop Independent News. (2013). 4,432,880 missing persons vanished in past 20 years. [Press Release]. Retrieved from: <>.

Sharlin, S.A., & Mor-Barak, M. (1992). Runaway girls in distress: Motivation, background, and personality. Adolescence, 27(106), 387-406. Retrieved from: <>.

Sowerby, A., & Thomas, S.D.M. (2017). A mixed methods study of the mental health and criminal justice histories of missing persons. Police Practise and Research, 18, 87-98.

Stein, J.A., Milburn, M.G., Zane, J.I., & Rotheram-Borus, M-J. (2009). Paternal and maternal influences on problem behaviours among homeless and runaway youth. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 79, 39-50.

Stevenson, O., Parr, H., Woolnough, P., & Fyfe, N. (2013). Geographies of missing people: Processes, experiences, responses. Glasgow: University of Glasgow.

Stevenson, S., & Thomas, S.D.M. (2018). A 10 year follow-up study for young people reported missing to the police for the first time in 2005. Journal of Youth Studies, 1.

Talley, A.E., Kocum, L., Schlegel, R.J., Molix, L., & Bettencourt, B.A. (2012). Social roles, basic need satisfaction, and psychological health: The central role of competence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 155-173.

Tavecchio, L.W.C., Thomeer, M.A.E., & Meeus, W. (1999). Attachment, social network, and homelessness in young people. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 27(3), 247- 262. Retrieved from: <>.

White, R. W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66, 297-333.

External links[edit | edit source]