9 Comments to
Behavior Detection Officers at U.S. Airports

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  1. This is very scarry news. My first question is are these “behavior detection officer” educated in mental health/psychology? What federal government (also scarry) “department” trained them to do whatever the heck “behavior detection” means?

  2. Yup, in a laboratory condition, with people who’s lives weren’t at stake in being able to lie (unlike a terrorist), Ekman has found some evidence that supports his specific manner for classifying liars versus those telling the truth. But, of course, there are a few problems with his main two studies (Ekman, 1997):

    1. His detection methods only work when the liars produce expected “lying” emotions — fear or disgust. I believe motivated terrorist organizations could readily train people to not display (or even have) such emotional responses (a relatively simple behavioral task, swapping one emotion for another).

    2. The results come from a single scorer. A second scorer gained only a 76% interrater reliability, suggesting scoring may have been biased. If you want robust results, use multiple scorers with reliability above 80% (and above 90% if you desire really good reliability).

    3. The study, one using one scenario or another, only accurately rated 80% of the liars as liars. That means 1 in 4 will be missed through this method. His methods only identified 70% of the people telling the truth as well, meaning his method will miss 3 out of 10 people who are lying.

    So while these results are interesting for a lab setting (even though Ekman tried to replicate a real-world setting, this was pre 9/11, and so his efforts sort of pale compare to what we may be now facing int he real-world), they are nowhere near reliable enough to suggest using on a population-wide basis, where such numbers will result in hundreds of people every day being falsely suspected of doing something wrong when they haven’t.

    What it boils down to is his methods *may* help better than 50/50 chance (although would love to see a real-world study done to confirm this), but not so much so that it would justify wide-scale, societally-acceptable use.

    PS – I will also note that one of the keys of scientific inquiry is that results are replicable. Even though this key study is a decade old, there doesn’t appear any additional studies done with similar methodology that have reproduced these results. In fact, it appears Ekman has gone into a lucrative consulting career selling his theories and hasn’t done any published research since 1997 (see ekmangrouptraining.com ).


    Frank, M. & Ekman, P. (1997). The Ability to Detect Deceit Generalizes Across Different Types of High-Stake Lies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 72. No.6, 1429—1439.

  3. John, that was an excellent response. More then I deserved, probably. As it is, I did some reading after posting and came to similar conclusions.
    Love the blog, thanks.

  4. I guess roughly 70 years is the amount of time that people, especially of European origin, purge themselves of past lessons and begin to commit the biggest crimes of history all over again. At least the Gestapo wore uniforms and Swastikas to distinguish themselves from the crowd. In the US people are such cowards that these new Behaviour Police are in plain clothes sneaking around airports ready to pounce on unsuspecting innocent people. 300 arrests, none of which have been “terrorist” related, out of 40,000 detainments is 0.75%?! Four days classroom plus three days on-the-job training is obviously no where near enough. Drivers training courses are longer. The all encompassing question is how can a population of roughly 300 million people be so cowardly to the point of allowing a small group of wealthy individuals destroy the world, socially & physically? Is it some delusional idea that they might someday be allowed admittance into the club? Is greed a genetic abnormality in the European genome or has Capitalist/Religious greed become such an accepted norm that all else is forfeit? I guess Global Warming is like radiation treatments and chemotherapy, cook the patient to get rid of a preventable disease. Cook the planet to get ride of the Capitalist/Religious infection, but end up killing everyone. Sad.

  5. So what do you propose to use as a “Proven Scientific Method.” I believe the answers usually lie in what-if questions. I think that the majority of the answer is in knowing the intellegence, the actual scope and mission objective, ect… Many people tend to dislike many of the procedures that TSA has adopted, but these individuals have not produced, nor defined a more reasonable method.

  6. Umm, you have that backwards. The U.S. Constitution defines the fact that we Americans have the right *not* to be searched without cause, etc. etc. It is up to the government, not science, to ensure that the methods they employ are (a) scientific and evidence-based and (b) do not infringe upon our existing Constitutional rights.

    If a magician goes to the government and says, “I can teach your TSA agents on how to read other people’s minds to ensure they aren’t terrorists,” I think (or at least would hope!) our government might be a little skeptical and demand some proof. You know, the way science usually demonstrates proof, in peer-reviewed journals.

    Without that existing proof, such methods should be dismissed as the scams of pseudo-science that they are. Crap science won’t make anyone safer. Even if some people believe it will.

  7. John,
    Excellent review of Ekman’s pseudo-scientific approach to lie detection.

    I’d be interested in your response to Ekman’s breaking into the big-time with his “Lie to Me” TV series.

    Seems he’s more of an entertainer than a real deception detection expert.



  8. Actually, I work at an airport. These men and women are a joke. They’re almost all fat, for one. They stand around and laugh and joke and talk to each other. They do everything BUT watch the travelers. Just watch these losers next time you fly.



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