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Airport security study shows fraudsters more likely to be caught through conversation than body language

Professor Thomas Ormerod's research carried out at Heathrow and other European airports showed that currrent screening methods largely failed to detect passengers with false identities.

A conversation-based screening method is 20 times more effective at catching airline passengers with false cover stories than the traditional method of examining body language for suspicious signs, according to new University of Sussex research.

A study led by psychologist Professor Thomas Ormerod and published today (6 November) has important implications not just for airport security but could also help with police inquiries and may be used to uncover insurance and tax fraud or to catch job applicants who lie about their qualifications or employment history.

During an eight-month study, security agents using the conversation screening method at international airports in Europe, including London’s Heathrow, detected dishonesty in 66 percent of the “mock” passengers. This compared to a three-percent detection rate for agents who were looking for body language signs thought to be associated with deception, including lack of eye contact, fidgeting and  nervousness.

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

Professor Ormerod, who previously worked with the UK government to improve security at athletic venues during the 2012 London Olympics, adds: “The UK government gave us a challenge that if we didn’t think the current airport screening method worked well, then we should come up with a better one.”

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.

In the CCE method, security agents engage in friendly, informal conversation by asking passengers seemingly unrelated and unpredictable questions about knowledge the passenger should possess. The agent then gauges whether a passenger’s responses become more evasive or erratic.

The CCE technique requires greater focus by security agents, who must think of different questions in each interview, rather than repeating scripted questions about luggage or travel plans in the suspicious-signs method that could be rehearsed by criminals seeking to avoid detection. The average screening time was the same for agents using CCE or the suspicious-signs method.

Researchers recruited 204 mock passengers , who were paid £60 pounds 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.

Agents trained in the CCE method improved in their ability to catch deceptive mock passengers during the study, increasing from 60 percent during the first month to 72 percent in the sixth month. The agents in the suspicious-signs group, however, performed worse over time, dropping from six percent 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,” says Professor Ormerod.

“People lie differently.You can’t assign one particular behavioural sign as a sign of lying. It’s how someone’s behaviour changes during questioning that reveals deception.”

The study, which was funded in part by the UK government, is published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.  Professor Ormerod conducted the research with Dr Coral Dando a psychology professor at the University of Wolverhampton and former London police officer.


Notes for editors

Article: “Finding a Needle in a Haystack: Towards a Psychologically Informed Method for Aviation Security Screening,” Thomas C. Ormerod, PhD, University of Sussex, and Coral J. Dando, PhD, University of Wolverhampton; Journal of Experimental Psychology: General; on 06 November 2014

University of Sussex Press Office:  Jacqui Bealing and James Hakner,  01273 678888,

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Thursday, 6 November 2014

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