Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Why TSA can't "read"

I did a little dance of joy when I heard this news on NPR today: The ACLU is suing the Transportation Security Administration over its one billion dollar "Behavior Detection" program, SPOT. You know this one--it's the program that trains TSA officers to recognize potential terrorists by assessing their behavior. Yes, trying to pick out "threats" from the masses of people going through an arduous screening process at a crowded airport, usually while they are either pressed for time or in desperate need of a bathroom (or is that just me?). The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request last October, and, according to USA Today, filed the lawsuit on March 19th, after that request received no response.

Why does this make me happy, aside from the hope that someday my airport wait will be shorter and less fraught? As a communications coach, I have been counseling my clients for years not to waste their time trying to "read" their audiences (see blog post from last March). The junk science such a belief is based on is just that - junk! And our tax dollars have been thrown away on variations of this behavioral detection since 2003. Wasteful, not to mention needlessly disruptive for countless travelers. As Behavioral Science Professor Nicholas Epley at the University of Chicago says in the NPR story, "The data that comes from experiments that test whether people can detect these subtle kinds of cues suggests that it can't be detected very well. . . a lot of those kinds of claims come without data to back them up."

But TSA isn't the only government agency who does this: an acting student of mine years ago argued with me that she had learned this "skill" working for one of our more . . . secretive agencies. And you know that businesses have jumped on this bandwagon and are paying big bucks for it.

The truth is you cannot know what someone is thinking by looking at facial expressions, behavior, or body language out of context any more than you can read someone's mind! But Hollywood loves this plot line (the example that springs to mind is Fox's 2009-2011 series  Lie to Me), and people love to think they can become "expert" at something that could be so useful in their personal and professional lives. Just think what an advantage you will have every day when you, too, can "read" your new boyfriend, your workplace nemesis, your industrial competitor!

But here's why this does not work: even if you succeed in correctly identifying fear or anger on someone's face, you can never be sure what has caused that emotion to flutter or flare. If you assume it is necessarily due to something you said or did. . . well . . .  you know what happens when you assume

As an acting teacher I know that even amateurs can convincingly channel emotions they do not really feel. And at airports, in workplaces, and on first dates we often choose which role we will "play." And when we do not do this consciously, it may be because we are preoccupied with different concerns that have nothing to do with our present situation.

Hoipefully SPOT will go by the wayside, my tax dollars will be better spent, and my clients will stop thinking they need to learn the trick of "reading" their audience. So a tip of the hat and a "thank you" to you,  ACLU!

*** "Demonstration of a proposal for automated detection of suspicious persons"
 training photo from Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

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