That's a quote from John Beam, a former head of security for TWA, which I quoted in a January 2002 column, "[Not Profiling:] A Deadly Error," referring to the skills that U.S. airline personnel are not allowed to draw on. It seemed hopeless back then to think that anyone would take such unscientific instincts seriously. But there is good news today in the Los Angeles Times in an article by Nicole Gaouette, "Gut Instinct Gets Scientific on Border."
Gaouette gives the example of Eugenio Garza Jr. and his colleagues at the Lincoln-Juarez Bridge along the U.S.-Mexican border, who seemed to have honed the ability to discern when those crossing the border are up to no good. "Sometimes he sniffs out trouble before people even utter a word." Garza, who has clocked more than a quarter-century on the border, says "You have about 22 seconds to figure out whether someone is fully telling the truth. A good agent can just sense when something is not right."
At a federal facility in Georgia, Customs and Border Protection is teaching agents to develop a gut instinct such as Garza has in a three-day class, "Deception Detection and Eliciting Responses." Its specifics are confidential, but researchers have identified four basic ways people signal discomfort:
- The nervous system: the heart rate quickens, hair rises, sweat glands start pumping, breathing speeds up, skin flushes or blanches.
- Body language: eyelashes blink more often, pupils dilate, and split-second flashes reveal concealed emotion.
- Speech: words tumble out more quickly or the pitch of the voice climbs.
- Verbal content: stories are too neat and linear.
Comment: It's great that customs is developing these tools. Now, how about the Transportation Security Administration doing likewise, sparing airline passengers the political theater of random searches? So far, the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) focuses on suspicious personal behavior, but it sounds minimal: "Passengers who flag concerns by exhibiting unusual or anxious behavior will be pointed out to local police, who will then conduct face-to-face interviews to determine whether any threat exists." It's time to learn custom's lessons and apply them at the airports. (June 26, 2005)
Mar. 23, 2014 update: The above account makes good sense to me but, nearly a decade later, 200 studies and a look at TSA's records suggests otherwise. Here are the first paragraphs from John Tierney, "At Airports, a Misplaced Faith in Body Language":
Like the rest of us, airport security screeners like to think they can read body language. The Transportation Security Administration has spent some $1 billion training thousands of "behavior detection officers" to look for facial expressions and other nonverbal clues that would identify terrorists.
But critics say there's no evidence that these efforts have stopped a single terrorist or accomplished much beyond inconveniencing tens of thousands of passengers a year. The T.S.A. seems to have fallen for a classic form of self-deception: the belief that you can read liars' minds by watching their bodies.
Most people think liars give themselves away by averting their eyes or making nervous gestures, and many law-enforcement officers have been trained to look for specific tics, like gazing upward in a certain manner. But in scientific experiments, people do a lousy job of spotting liars. Law-enforcement officers and other presumed experts are not consistently better at it than ordinary people even though they're more confident in their abilities.