Current Research in Psychology

How (Un)biased are Airport Security Screening Procedures? A Social-Cognitive Experiment

Poornima Madhavan and Jeremy R. Brown

DOI : 10.3844/crpsp.2010.71.74

Current Research in Psychology

Volume 1, Issue 1

Pages 71-74


Problem statement: This research examined the role that social-cognitive biases such as gender biases and racial biases play in decision making processes during the screening of carry-on luggage at airports. This research is unique in that no research so far has addressed the social-psychological underpinnings of airport security screening procedures. Approach: Participants (n = 36) performed a computer simulated task wherein they played the role of luggage screeners and detected hidden weapons in 200 x-ray images of passenger luggage. Participants saw each luggage image for 3 sec, thereby simulating the high time pressure and short decision time characteristic of busy international airports. At the beginning of each trial and before observing the luggage, participants were shown the picture of the “passenger” to whom the luggage purportedly belonged for a brief exposure period. The passenger pictures were pre-tested and were representative of both genders and five different races (White, Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, Hispanic). After observing the passenger's picture, participants scanned the luggage and chose to either pass or stop the bag based on their diagnosis of weapon presence or absence. Results: Results revealed no significant differences in probability of correct detections as a function of passenger gender or race. However, the probability of generating false positives was significantly higher when the passenger was male; more importantly, this effect was observed for only two races-passengers of Middle Eastern or Hispanic origin. Conclusion/Recommendations: Participants purportedly depended heavily on their opinions of the passenger to make their decisions to pass or stop the bag when time pressure was high, almost as a heuristic replacement for visually scanning the bag under constrained situations. These results go beyond simple ingroup-outgroup differences discussed in social psychology; they point to deeply ingrained biases targeting specific demographic groups in the United States. These results are significant for airport security screening and the future of national security.


© 2010 Poornima Madhavan and Jeremy R. Brown. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.