Dangerous Body Language: Digging Beyond What You See!

I read a very interesting article on TSA screening  and the SPOT program developed by Paul Ekman they are using in and effort to spot potential terrorist and or terrorist activity. The article “More on Airport Clairvoyance Machines” by Ed Brayton discusses the validity of the technique of using body language and facial expressions in our efforts to make airports and travel safer. In the article he asks the question; is it possible to know whether people are being deceptive, or planning hostile acts, just by observing them?

Most credibility-assessment researchers agree that humans are demonstrably poor at face-to-face lie detection. SPOT traces its intellectual roots to the small group of researchers who disagree -- perhaps the most notable being Paul Ekman, now an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco. In the 1970s, Ekman co-developed the 'facial action coding system' for analyzing human facial expressions, and has since turned it into a methodology for teaching people how to link those expressions to a variety of hidden emotions, including an intent to deceive. He puts particular emphasis on 'microfacial' expressions such as a tensing of the lips or the raising of the brow -- movements that might last just a fraction of a second, but which might represent attempts to hide a subject's true feelings. Ekman claims that a properly trained observer using these facial cues alone can detect deception with 70% accuracy -- and can raise that figure to almost 100% accuracy by also taking into account gestures and body movements. Ekman says he has taught about one thousand TSA screeners and continues to consult on the program.

Mr. Brayton discusses how he has used the techniques during poker games and finds that the techniques do indeed work and makes the point.

“that a very observant person can, in fact, detect things like nervousness and deception fairly reliably if the person they are observing is not aware of the same techniques. And if they are aware of those techniques, they can also rig things so that the person doing the observing gets it wrong. Which is why this kind of thing is virtually useless for airport security.”

His points in the article are very good, but I will take issue with his statement I have bolded above : ”Which is why this kind of thing is virtually useless for airport security.” Body language, gestures and expressions alert us to anxiety and stress and the emotions people may be feeling at the time the non-verbal behavior is observed. What it does not tell you is why the person being observed is feeling the way he or she is feeling and hence non-verbal queues should be thought of as hot spots in need of further inquiry. This Paul Ekman, explains in his research and in his book emotions revealed. The expressions and gestures you are observing could be from a person who just learned of a flight delay or cancelation. The person could be traveling to see a sick relative or may be afraid of flying. Or he could be up to something more sinister, such as an act of terror.

With non-verbal communication as with any other method of reading people and threats, there is no magic bullet, no one method solves all our problems. The reading of body language only leads to more of an inquiry, more interaction and more observations. This is the missing component to the statement “which is why this kind of thing is virtually useless for airport security.” Standing alone reading body language only shows emotions, anxiety and stress. To route out threats or some other problem, you must dig beyond what you see and know how to engage people with a proper encounter that allows you determine the meaning behind what you observe.

Body language is only part of the equation. Observation and communication skills, your ability interact and engage people to gathering actionable information. This along with knowledge of the types of threats we face and how a would be terrorist may implement his course of action along with your ability as a security professional or law enforcement officer to get inside the decision making cycle of a potential adversary as you ask questions in an effort to find out the nature of the non-verbal behavior you have observed. After all our goal is to prove and/or disprove the nature of a threat. Then take appropriate actions. Again there is no magic bullet when it comes to threat assessment, routing out crime or a terrorist attack. My question; When are we going to get over the tendency to one stop shop for an answer to complex and continually adapting complex problems such as terrorism?

Stay Oriented!