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Security Screener Chitchat Detects Deceptive Airline Passengers

Researchers say their findings could also have implications for police officers.

By University Alliance on December 30, 2014
Study: Small Talk Helps Airport Screeners Nab Deceptive Passengers

Think that airport security screener is chit-chatting too much with the passengers?

Instead of socializing while on duty, the security worker may actually be laser-focused on trying to prevent a deceptive person with bad intentions from boarding the plane.

A new study has found that security agents who used conversation-based techniques were significantly more effective at detecting mock airline passengers with fake cover stories than screeners who used traditional methods of observing body language for suspicious signs.

The researchers enlisted 204 acting students and undercover police detectives and tasked them with posing as passengers at international airports in Europe. The fake passengers were given predetermined cover stories and were paid for participating. As an incentive, their payment was doubled if they avoided detection, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), which published the findings in November 2014.

Seventy-nine security agents received a week of classroom instruction and a week of on-the-job training in the new Controlled Cognitive Engagement (CCE) method. The control group comprised 83 screeners who did not receive extra training.

Agents who used CCE techniques were much more astute, the researchers noted in their study, Finding a Needle in a Haystack: Towards a Psychologically Informed Method for Aviation Security Screening. Those agents detected 66% of the deceptive passengers using conversation-based screening. By comparison, security agents who looked for behavioral indicators such as fidgeting or avoidance of eye contact were able to identify just 3% of the fake fliers.

Screeners who engaged passengers in small talk became more effective at uncovering deceit over time, while those who looked for signs of shiftiness fared worse as the study progressed.

Not only does the suspicious-signs method “almost completely” fail to reveal deception, it is also expensive, time-consuming and “gives people a false sense of security,” study co-author Thomas Ormerod, a researcher at the University of Sussex in England, told the APA.

In the United States, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created to secure the nation’s airports and other mass transit systems in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The federal agency has about 60,000 employees, including nearly 50,000 officers and inspectors, according to its website.

Each day, the TSA screens about 1.8 million passengers at more than 450 airports. Its 3,000 behavior detection officers use observational techniques, not conversation-based screening. The agency says it has arrested more than 2,700 airline passengers since its inception.

The authors of the new study said recent research has revealed verbal techniques that can help distinguish truth-tellers from deceivers, including:

  • Questions and follow-up challenges based on information already known about the subject
  • Open-ended questions that elicit detailed accounts that commit the subject to an account of the truth
  • Tests of expected knowledge, such as the topography of a location with which the subject should be familiar
  • Analyzing speech content for response length and unique words as liars typically say less and repeat words

“Our results have implications for practitioners, both in security screening, and more generally for professional lie-catchers such as police officers and court officials,” the researchers noted.

Category: 2014 Headlines