The TSA's Mental 'Coin Flip' That May Keep You From Traveling

from the because-highly-trained-detection-officers-work-for-$10/hr dept

I am (TSA Behavioral Detection Officer) Jack’s self-delusion.

Like the rest of us, airport security screeners like to think they can read body language. TheTransportation Security Administration has spent some $1 billion training thousands of “behavior detection officers” to look for facial expressions and other nonverbal clues that would identify terrorists.

But critics say there’s no evidence that these efforts have stopped a single terrorist or accomplished much beyond inconveniencing tens of thousands of passengers a year. The T.S.A. seems to have fallen for a classic form of self-deception: the belief that you can read liars’ minds by watching their bodies.

$1 billion in taxpayer funds spent, and nothing’s safer. The only “positive” seems to be that TSA’s officials have improved their own morale.

The T.S.A.’s administrator, John S. Pistole, defended its behavior-detection program last year by saying it identified “high-risk passengers at a significantly higher rate than random screening.”

Pistole likely believes this to be true because the human brain is will betray its owner to make it happy. People generally tend to believe they’re smarter than other people and that their skills are more finely honed — whether or not the skills they claim have in fact been honed or are even possible.

The GAO (Government Accountability Office) came to an entirely different conclusion when it applied science, rather than belief, to the TSA’s expensive Behavioral Detection program.

Peer-reviewed, published research does not support whether the use of nonverbal behavioral indicators by human observers can accurately identify deception. Our review of meta-analyses and other studies related to detecting deception conducted over the past 60 years, and interviews with experts in the field, question the use of behavior observation techniques, that is, human observation unaided by technology, as a means for reliably detecting deception. The meta-analyses, or reviews that synthesize the findings of other studies, we reviewed collectively included research from more than 400 separate studies on detecting deception, and found that the ability of human observers to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral cues or indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance (54 percent).

$1 billion thrown at something as useful as a coinflip to apprehending terroists. Or rather, would be as useful as a coin flip, if it only came up heads once in one hundred coin tosses.

It noted that fewer than 1 percent of the more than 30,000 passengers a year who are identified as suspicious end up being arrested, and that the offenses (like carrying drugs or undeclared currency) have not been linked to terrorist plots.

Pistole still believes in the program, though, and there won’t be much that can convince him otherwise. For one thing, there’s a whole lot of money riding on it. For another, there’s the natural biases of the human brain. Of course, it’s protected by the DHS, the same government entity that feels so confident in its employees’ imaginary “abilities” that it argued CBP agents’ “hunches” should supersede the “reasonable suspicion” demands of the Fourth Amendment.

And, as if the human’s innate ability to convince itself it possesses skills it can’t scientifically have isn’t bad enough, the millions of dollars being poured into behavioral detection training is only making things worse. (While there were numerous sources for this information, I feel it’s most enjoyably explained by Cracked.)

[P]olice officers have to go through rigorous training to make sure they pick up on the common tells people exhibit when they lie, but all of that training is actually worse for them than no training at all. The problem is that the training focuses on signs of nervousness, like twitching and discomfort, when twitching and discomfort are also known side effects of an innocent person sitting in an interrogation room. So as you can imagine, there are a lot of false positives. There are also countless other factors that determine how much someone squirms — like their cultural background, what kind of lie they’re telling, and whether the suspect is generally a noddy, hand-and-feet-movey kind of person (how many of you reading this are fidgeting at a desk right now, tapping your foot or bouncing your knee?)

A grizzled old police officer might say, “Yeah, that training is BS! I can spot a lie thanks to my 20 years on the streets.”

Nope, sorry. They did a study on officers who’d been on the force for anywhere between three and 26 years and found that, incredibly, the longer someone’s been an officer, the worse he or she is at telling when someone’s lying.

When you base an entire program on a delusion that only gets worse with experience and training, you’ve got a nightmare on your hands. The TSA detained 30,000 people, found no terrorists, nailed a few people on ancillary charges, and when asked about it, claimed it was an amazing success.

There’s no magic ability to detect liars and the cursory conversations deployed by TSA agents to sniff out would-be terrorists aren’t nearly enough to qualify as “behavioral detection.” Some things can be learned by observing people, but there’s always going to be a ton of false positives to sift through.

Not only that, but no one wants to participate in faux-small talk with a person who wields an inordinate amount of power. Their recalcitrance can easily be “hunched” into “reasonable suspicion” by a BDO. Nearly everyone caught in these little “behavioral detection” chats is going to be nervous, because they know one simple misplaced word or action is the difference between them boarding their flight unmolested or potentially spending a few hours attempting to prove a negative to a bunch of TSA agents suffering from the delusion that they can determine suspicious behavior “just by looking.”

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Comments on “The TSA's Mental 'Coin Flip' That May Keep You From Traveling”

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John Fenderson (profile) says:

Classic indeed

The T.S.A. seems to have fallen for a classic form of self-deception: the belief that you can read liars? minds by watching their bodies.

This is such a common problem that it is one of the short list of human traits that scam artists absolutely rely on to be successful.

All significant research to date shows that you cannot tell when someone is being deceptive by watching them unless you already have an excellent knowledge of how that specific person behaves when being truthful in similar conditions. People are just too variable.

How much would you bet they’re including the well-debunked techniques of lie detection that cops often use, such as if a person looks in a particular direction when they speak, etc. If so, then the entire program should not only be ended, but it should be ended in a cloud of ridicule and laughter.

DV Henkel-Wallace (profile) says:

Asymmetry of consequence

The worst thing about this is that there is no feedback in the system. If you unfairly prevent someone from traveling you (TSA) don?t suffer at all ? in fact you could be praised. While the innocent traveler is screwed.

On the other hand if you fail to find a gun-carrier, well, there?s an X ray machine to (maybe) find it.

John85851 (profile) says:

Lie to Me

Why do I think someone in the upper levels of the TSA got finished watching “Lie to Me” on Netflix and thought it was a cool idea?
In case people haven’t seen it, the show is about how the character Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) reads people’s facial expressions to solve crimes. It’s a cool concept, but like most fiction TV shows, the science doesn’t stand up.

But the bigger issue is why taxpayers had to pay $1 billion for this program.

Rekrul says:

Not only that, but no one wants to participate in faux-small talk with a person who wields an inordinate amount of power. Their recalcitrance can easily be “hunched” into “reasonable suspicion” by a BDO. Nearly everyone caught in these little “behavioral detection” chats is going to be nervous, because they know one simple misplaced word or action is the difference between them boarding their flight unmolested or potentially spending a few hours attempting to prove a negative to a bunch of TSA agents suffering from the delusion that they can determine suspicious behavior “just by looking.”

One possible solution to these “casual” chats with TSA would be to pretend to be extremely hard of hearing. Explain to the agent, quite loudly, that you’re just getting over a double ear infection and they’ll have to speak up. When they ask you anything, ask them to repeat it, and then pretend to misunderstand it and give the wrong answer, all while being extremely friendly. If they’re like most people, they’ll give up in frustration after having to yell the same question 3-4 times.

New Mexico Mark says:

Beyond the obvious problems in this methodology

there is the added certainty that it will be abused to get people to “respect mah authoratay”. When subjectivity is encouraged and accountability is discouraged, truth flies out the window and abuses will occur with greater and greater frequency.

Give me the minuscule chance of terrorists any day compared to the likelihood of experiencing the abuse practiced constantly by the TSA. It is an organization founded on false premises, permeated with ignorant bullies and busybodies, and it needs to be reduced to no more than .1 percent of its current funding immediately. (That would continue paying for air marshals.)

Even better, disbanding the TSA would force tens of thousands of deadbeats on the government dole to find other jobs. Some of them might even become hardworking, honest citizens with a better appreciation of a dollar, never mind a billion.

DB says:

I’ve taken multiple polygraphs. Ones that matter.

The process was informative. I found that I’m a horrible liar. But also that I’m slightly worse at telling the truth.

The same is likely true for most people. Have them fly in late the night before, stay in a unfamiliar hotel room, wake earlier than usual, wear a suit and tie instead of their usual jeans and a polo shirt, and tell them that their future depends on the answers they give. That’s a great recipe for an unreadable mess.

In retrospect, pretty much the only thing you can reliably guess is that the person didn’t practice their responses.

The same is true of police and TSA questioning. Someone really nervous, showing the “classic” signs of deception, is probably innocent: they hadn’t practiced for the encounter.

jimb (profile) says:

You need to think about this like a high-level TSA administrator would… let’s see: $1 Billion spent on training, 30,000 detentions. So, $33,333 per detention. Then, 1% of the detained people are actually arrested for a chargable offense (the other 99% merely were inconvenienced, missed their planes, missed business meetings, lost productivity, etc. – so no real harm done). So $3,333,333 per arrest – that’s just three and one-third million dollars per arrest. Imagine if TSA had more money to spend on this – they could catch more terrorists and criminals! So next year’s budget should have $2 Billion for this training, to make sure that TSA catches more terrorists. After all, this is a proven program to catch criminals and terrorists (maybe someday it -will- actually catch a real terrorist). Just because no actual terrorists have been caught with these techniques is no reason to stop doing them. We can enhance public safety if we spend more money and detain more people.

Now you see how a high-level TSA administrator thinks about this kind of thing… so no surprises when they increase the training for this technique, to ‘increase our ability to improve safety for the American public’.

Brazenly Anonymous says:

Detecting lies

Look, the real problem with pushing back against this stuff is that it can, and does every day, work in very specific circumstances. It is from this experience that the belief in the ability to determine who is lying arises. Attacking the belief without accounting for the auxiliary successes isn’t going to achieve much.

So, what are the circumstances? The person being tested for lying must have no reason to believe that they are being so tested. The reason for this is that what is being tested for is this belief. A liar will always believe that what they say is being scrutinized, whereas someone telling the truth will only have this belief when what the listener has some other reason to distrust them. Lie detectors of any sort are looking for this tension.

So you can detect when someone is lying, so long as you are little more than a passive observer in a relaxed setting, and the claim is not inherently extraordinary. However, you cannot take this same skill into an already tense environment.

mattshow (profile) says:

I remember a study cited in my criminal law class where they tested law enforcement and court personnel from a variety of US agencies on their ability to detect lies based on body language and facial expression. So local law enforcement, state troopers, FBI agents, judges, etc. The only agency that demonstrated an above average ability to detect liars was the Secret Service.

I know that vague references to “a study” without identifying the study aren’t trustworthy, so I’m going to try to dig the study up, as much for my own curiosity as anything else.

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