Nicola Bulley and the psychology of when people go missing – is this the worst trauma of all?

Picture: Agency

In the UK, on 27th January, Nicola Bulley, disappeared while walking her dog by a river in Lancashire, England. The story was widely covered in the British press and media. including BBC News.

The mortgage adviser had just dropped off her daughters at school; her dog was found shortly afterward, and it was dry, so it hadn’t been in the river. Her phone was also found still connected to a work conference call on a bench along the river bank.

Despite a major police search operation and relentless nationwide media coverage, it was more than three weeks before her body was eventually found on Sunday, 19th February. Yet it wasn’t discovered by the army of experts roaming the crime scene, but instead by some walkers. As the body was just around a mile from where she had disappeared, and as a consequence, police handling of the disappearance is to be the subject of an independent review.

The Lancashire constabulary also faced a public and media backlash as, during the search, in an unprecedented step, they disclosed Ms. Bulley’s apparent struggles with menopause and alcohol. The police’s defense was they were trying; “to avoid any further speculation” (according to the BBC News Website).

According to the BBC News website, Ms. Bulley’s family said they were aware that police were revealing the personal details, adding: “Although we know that Nikki would not have wanted this, there are people out there speculating and threatening to sell stories about her.”

The search had drawn massive public interest, with large numbers of people descending upon the small community, playing detective, filming the area, and even breaking into local buildings.

In response, the police had to issue dispersal notices, including warnings over anti-social behavior.

The Nicola Bulley case reveals that social media may be becoming a major force in criminal investigations.

A study entitled ‘Crowdsourcing Criminology: Social Media And Citizen Policing In Missing Person Cases’, argues that the internet and digital technologies are increasingly creating opportunities for civilians to play at becoming police officers. Increasingly large numbers of citizens now participate in online crowdsourced investigations of criminal cases.

They describe this emerging field as ‘crowdsourcing criminology’.

The theory might be that pooling information obtained from many observers might be closer to the truth, than if it were merely gathered by smaller groups, like a smaller police team.

“Collective intelligence” is a hypothesis asserting that groups solve problems more effectively than experts. Can the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ compensate for a lack of relevant expertise?

‘Crowd criminology’, might also become more about entertainment than any honest systematic attempt to help resolve a case. It can create more noise and heat than actual assistance, as may have been the case in the Nicola Bulley tragedy.

Yet we must also remember it was in fact ordinary members of the public who actually found the body, not the police, demonstrating again that no law enforcement agency anywhere in the world, has the ‘manpower’ that the public does.

But the police’s attempts to enlist the public’s assistance can backfire and the missing person’s family then suffers the indignity of being internet trolled. This can contribute to a breakdown in the sometimes already strained trust between the police and the family.

A study entitled ‘Investigating Missing Persons: Learning From Interviews With Families’, published in The Journal of Homicide and Major Incident Investigation, found that families of missing people are not passive when they are dissatisfied with the police search strategy. They actively respond to their frustration, sometimes launching their own personal hunts, some can last for years.

The study found this obstructed the emotional recovery of those left behind but still searching.

Coping with a loss is always difficult but a missing person represents a particularly difficult kind of loss event, referred to by psychologists as ‘ambiguous loss’.

This investigation involved 21 interviews with family members of missing people. Family members had experienced missing events that ranged from a few hours to a few weeks to 20 years.

What many families reported was a critical element of their role in missing person inquiries is their own character witness of the person who is missing.

Investigating officers using the right sort of spatial questions could prompt families to think in detail and think laterally about the ‘where?’ of their missing family member: ‘It was very much a case of “where do you think she could have gone?” It’s amazing the things that come back when you [they, the police] start prompting. Things like “where would she normally go shopping, would it be unusual for her to go anywhere else?” It was about routines and things like that said one family member.

Psychologically sophisticated questioning by the police could therefore powerfully assist the family of a missing person to provide better information about what was possible about where a missing person might have ended up.

A study from the Royal Institute of Technology, in Stockholm, Sweden examined the increasing role of social media when it comes to missing persons. The authors of the investigation point out that social digital networks such as Twitter and Facebook have become among the most popular sources for accessing emergency information by a population facing a crisis, including earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, terror attacks, and forest fires.

But while social media helps people organize themselves to help others through “digital volunteerism”, the authors of the study caution that it would appear the motivation when large numbers become mobilized by a missing person, or any kind of catastrophe, that social media tends to be more about processing or expressing or spreading strong emotion, and also may even be more about forming new connections with others, rather than actually providing effective help.

Maybe social media is filling emotional needs generated by the trauma of ‘ambiguous loss’.

It could also be that the power of social media is that it makes us all feel like we are experts.

Yet surely there is a world of difference between the years of study and the hardness of gaining qualifications followed by experience on the job, that all goes into forming a real expert?

Psychologists have long known that it is the stress of not knowing that underpins the trauma of ambiguous loss, as happens when someone goes missing as opposed to when there is a definite tragic outcome which at least can start to be emotionally processed.

Maybe social media fills a deep psychological need within us to always be ‘in the know’, even when in fact, the reality is, we frequently have to confront the unknown.

Following a plethora of theories, referred to as vindictive and salacious, spread on social media, the family of Nicola Bulley has revealed, as reported on various news websites, that public focus had “distracted from finding Nikki”.


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