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Hunted: the psychology of fugitives

A team of psychologists from the University of Twente is conducting research in connection with the new prime-time reality show Hunted, broadcast on NPO3 at 20.30 from Monday, 17 October.

It is highly unusual for behavioural research to focus on the candidates of a reality TV show. Another unique feature of the study is the use of technology to analyse the behavioural patterns of fugitives.  

Hunted is a social experiment that focuses on whether it is possible for someone to disappear in this modern age and whether there is still such a thing as privacy. It centres on twelve candidates whose objective is to stay out of the hands of a team of  expert hunters for a period of 21 days. The programme therefore provides an insight into the psychology of fugitives, a behavioural research theme at the University of Twente and one that is highly topical in light of the recent manhunt for terror suspect Salah Abdeslam following the attack at Brussels Airport.

Routes, locations and trust

Before the programme began, the research group led by Professor of Psychology Ellen Giebels asked the candidates to respond to a series of written questions. When filming was over, the candidates were also interviewed. Several participants wore a sensor armband that recorded their stress levels during their time on the run. In addition, the research team was given access to GPS data that recorded the participants’ escape routes and the speed at which they were moving. This information can be linked to location information, such as population density and whether the fugitives were hiding in familiar environments or close to people they trusted.  

Research findings

Since the show is still being broadcast, the researchers have to be careful not to reveal anything about the outcome. However, they are already able to share a few findings:

1. The research team discovered major differences in stress levels: some candidates experienced very little stress while in others very high levels were observed. There is no evidence that stress levels were very high to begin with and slowly decreased, or that the tension gradually built as the experience went on. Stress was more dependent on the time of day and fluctuated in response to particular incidents.

2. In terms of personality profile, it appears that a participant’s chance of success increases if he or she attaches little importance to the old and familiar (nostalgia), is good at coping with uncertainty and has few qualms about misleading people.

3. All of the participants moved around a lot and sometimes travelled great distances. This is particularly interesting when you consider that moving around and travelling at high speed, especially towards a familiar objective, increases the risk of getting caught.


The BMS Lab - Powered by Tech4People

The study – carried out in close cooperation with Signpost Six and producer Simpel Media – is one of a kind. Within the University of Twente, the research is a pilot project by the recently launched BMS Lab – Powered by Tech4People.
Due to the limitations in terms of sample size, the researchers are currently exploring the opportunities for a follow-up.  

drs. M.M.J. van Hillegersberg - Hofmans (Martine)
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