Ineffectively Testing the Effectiveness of TSA

The SPOT program

effectiveness of TSA

Effectiveness of TSA

November 11, 2015

Trouble with ineffective testing
TSA personnel in the SPOT (Screening Passengers with Observational Techniques) program have come under repeated, unjustified criticism. Their failure to catch people pretending to be bad guys is totally irrelevant to whether they can, or will, be able to catch the real bad guys. To test that, we have to get back to the real world.

Real emotions lead to real results
For money and weapons smugglers (and, much more rarely, terrorists), the goal is to try to get through airport security without being SPOTted. My research, and the research of many other scientists, has found that when there’s a lot to lose, such as death or imprisonment, the emotions generated are intense and very hard to conceal so they often leak out in what I call micro expressions.

The problem with faking emotions
SPOT personnel undergo micro expressions training to learn to detect these and other signs of emotional overload. Whether it be money or 72 virgins, the promise of a great reward if successful (and the threat of dire punishment for failing) puts an incredible amount of pressure on a person’s ability to think clearly. This results in what we call cognitive overload , and causes subtle changes in a person’s speech. SPOT personnel are trained to detect these subtle signs of emotional and cognitive overload, which explains why the play-actors went undetected; with nothing to lose and nothing to gain if their “bombs” were detected, they wouldn’t show the signs of cognitive or emotional overload.

A SPOTty outlook
I am all for testing the SPOT program, but let’s not do it in such a shoddy, half-baked, invalid fashion – that only wastes government money and smears a valid, much-needed layer of airport security. In a never publicly released study by the American Institute of Research, people identified by the TSA SPOTters were fifty times more likely to be wanted felons or smugglers than those selected at random. This evidence says that the system is working. Does that mean we shouldn’t continue to look for more ways to improve our security methods? Absolutely not, but let’s be grateful for the layers of security currently in place, too.


Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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