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New airport security screening method more than 20 times as successful at detecting deception


A study found that airport security staff caught ‘mock’ airline passengers with deceptive cover stories more than 20 times as often as those who examined body language for suspicious signs.

In experiments spanning eight months, security agents at eight international airports in Europe detected dishonesty in 66 per cent of the deceptive mock passengers using the new screening method. This compared to just three per cent for agents who observed signs thought to be associated with deception, including lack of eye contact, fidgeting and nervousness.

The study, funded in part by the British government, was published by American Psychological Association, and  carried out by Dr Coral Dando, a Psychology Professor at the University of Wolverhampton and former London police officer, and Professor Thomas Ormerod, head of the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex. 

The suspicious-signs screening method is widely used in airports in the United States, United Kingdom and many other countries. Dr Dando said: “The suspicious-signs method of passenger screening has never been empirically validated, and is largely based on outdated perceptions about the types of behaviours that indicate threat. It is repetitious and widely accessible because passengers undergo exactly the same procedure every time they fly.”

The new Controlled Cognitive Engagement method (CCE), which is based on previous laboratory studies, had the highest rate of deception detection in the first large-scale study of screening methods conducted in a real-life airport setting. This could have important implications for thwarting terrorist attacks and catching other criminals, according to the research.

Professor Ormerod said: “The suspicious-signs method almost completely fails in detecting deception. In addition, it costs a lot of money, absorbs a lot of time and gives people a false sense of security.”

In the CCE method, security agents engage in what appears to be a friendly, informal conversation, asking passengers seemingly unrelated and unpredictable questions about knowledge the passenger should possess. “It shouldn’t feel like an interrogation”, Prof Ormerod says.

In the study, 79 security agents received one week of classroom training in the CCE method, followed by a week of on-the-job training. A control group of 83 agents received no additional training. The lessons covered myths about deception detection and ways to build rapport and gather information from passengers. The bulk of the research occurred at Heathrow Airport outside London, with other screening experiments conducted at two other British airports (Gatwick and Manchester) and airports in Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Zurich and Milan.

Researchers recruited 204 mock passengers (113 male, 91 female), including college acting students and undercover police detectives. Participants were paid £60 to participate, along with an additional £60 if they avoided detection by security agents. Each mock passenger had a week to research a different deceptive cover story so he or she would be more convincing when questioned. For example, one recruit was instructed to say he was a telecommunications engineer traveling from England to Chicago for an international amateur fencing competition.

The mock passengers had tickets and joined genuine passengers in security lines, where their screenings were discretely recorded. If a mock passenger was caught, he or she was flagged in a computer system for further questioning at the gate, but all mock passengers turned around after passing through security and left the airport. A control group included 204 genuine passengers (113 male, 91 female) who were asked after their screenings if the recordings could be used in the research.

The CCE technique requires greater focus by security agents, who must think of different questions, using an incremental structured questioning approach, rather than simply repeating scripted questions about luggage or travel plans as advocated by the suspicious-signs method, and which could be rehearsed by criminals seeking to avoid detection, the study noted. Dr Dando said: “Given the availability of the suspicious-signs method, and the fact that it actually closes down one of the most important behaviours for understanding threat, that is conversation, one has to ask why this method has survived for so long without challenge.”

The risk of racial profiling also is reduced with the CCE method because it is applied in the same way to all passengers, unlike the suspicious-signs method, which is based on observation of physical characteristics.

The average screening time was the same for agents using CCE or the suspicious-signs method, but agents using the CCE method asked fewer questions, with both genuine and mock passengers speaking at greater length to them. But mock passengers gradually spoke less and revealed less information as they were asked more questions that might reveal their deception.

Screening agents trained in the CCE method improved in their ability to catch deceptive mock passengers during the study, increasing from 60 per cent during the first month to 72 per cent in the sixth month. The agents in the suspicious-signs group, however, performed worse over time, dropping from  six per cent in the first month to zero in the sixth month.

Even though it isn’t effective, the suspicious-signs method is frequently used because it is cheap to train, and it “accords with people’s folk beliefs about detecting deception,” Prof Ormerod said.

The CCE method also could be used by detectives, court officials and other “professional lie catchers,” the study noted.

Ormerod and Dando are working with British police departments on adapting the screening method to monitor sex offenders on probation or parole. The method also may be used to uncover insurance and tax fraud and to catch job applicants who lie about their qualifications or employment history. 


For more information please contact Vickie Warren in the Media Relations Office at the University of Wolverhampton on 01902 322736.

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