The psychology behind safer airport screening

airport-securityFlinders University researcher Jason McCarley is on a mission to make airport security scanners more effective by tailoring them to the psychology of the user.

Professor McCarley has just received a $235,109 grant from the US Department of Homeland Security to develop guidelines for ensuring security software is designed in a way to optimise human screeners’ performance.

“When you go through the airport you pass your bags through an X-ray scanner, and maybe have to walk through a whole-body X-ray scanner yourself, so that screeners can search for weapons or other contraband,” Professor McCarley, based in the School of Psychology, said.

“Computerised search aids are designed to pinpoint or highlight suspicious objects in the X-rays to make sure the human screener doesn’t miss anything,” he said.

“But just like a human screener, computerised aids make mistakes – they don’t always spot targets that are there and they sometimes produce false alarms.

“The consequence is that the human screener often stops using the aid, even when it could be helpful, so our goal is to design the interface and behaviour of the computer aid to help the user trust it more.”

As part of the year-long project, Professor McCarley will investigate how errors committed by search aids influence user behaviour, and establish principles to minimise the psychological costs of the computer’s errors.

“People tend to distrust the computer aid more after it commits a false alarm than after it misses a target,” he said.

“The designer can modify the system to reduce false alarms but that will increase the number of targets that are missed.

“Therefore, the design we choose needs to balance errors in a way that encourages the user to trust the software appropriately.”

Professor McCarley said it was important to make global travel as safe and expedient as possible.

“We want people to travel safely, and we want to get them through the security lines as quickly as possible in a way that minimises stress for the screeners and passengers.

“The funding from Homeland Security will help us figure out how best to do that.”

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2 thoughts on “The psychology behind safer airport screening

  1. With relation to human interaction with x-ray/scanning devices, both object and human, potentially drivers for non-use may be the medical, personal, electro-magnetic and radiation impacts of the equipment which many now understand to be highly dangerous. These issues warrant significant investigation and analysis. For example, one would not expect a radiographer to expose themselves to significant amounts of radiation during their average working day however these workers are exposed ongoing. Similarly, travellers who are required to walk through a human scanner, finding this provokative on many levels, including medically, safety-wise and personally may display their significant objections to staff operating the equipment, also having a negative impact on operators and affecting their willingness to continue with operation or usage. All understandable to my mind.
    Kind regards,

  2. In relation to the laborers in charge of doing the screening, sometimes the difficulty of a task is the monotony of it, the imprecision, or the uncertainty of the value of the results if there is no sure way for the one engaged in the task to qualify those results. In addition, its not like these laborers are panning for gold, which when found brings profit, purchase, and lifestyle, but they are searching for things that, on a base level are negative and have a negative value, that they would rather not find but for the sake of security. Even though the workers may be separated from their real feelings about the task, on a psychological level, its a dirty job because they are required to remain skeptical about everyone who passes through their gate. Skepticism requires more energy, because it is negative, and it has been found that self control/attention is a limited resource. Their ability to remain focused for extended time segments during a ‘psychologically negative’ task is limited. Perhaps?

    Kind regards,

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