originally published in the Hartford Advocate
Let’s play “Name That Background Noise,” where the Advocate lists the sounds of a given location and you guess where it is. Ready? Here goes: “Take off your jacket and shoes. I’m confiscating your shampoo because it’s in a four-ounce bottle and any bottle bigger than three ounces is a terrorist threat. Seriously, that’s our official policy.”
If you guessed “an airport checkpoint staffed by the Transportation Security Administration,” you win! For your prize, here’s some useful advice (which the losers should also heed): next time you fly somewhere, schedule it for when you’re in a good mood and can remain so even if TSA says they’re taking your deodorant so nobody can hijack the plane with it.
The good mood’s important because a bad one might attract attention from Behavior Detection Officers, TSA agents trained (more or less) to wander through airports looking for secret hidden facial expressions that indicate you’re up to no good.
Seriously, that’s their official duty. “There are physical and psychological signals that manifest themselves when an individual is … feeling fear and anxiety [such as] trying to hide a fear of discovery,” said Ann Davis, a TSA regional spokesperson in Boston.
TSA’s Web site says the same thing with slightly different words, describing BDOs as people who go around “identifying potentially high-risk individuals based on involuntary physical and psychological reactions.”
They’re talking about something called “microexpressions,” which supposedly make a person’s hidden feelings visible, albeit briefly, to anyone who knows how to look. Paul Ekman, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC San Francisco, discovered the phenomenon nearly 40 years ago.
Early in his career, Ekman determined that certain facial expressions remain consistent across all societies. Though cultures disagree on some facial issues, like whether eye contact is respectful or rude, feelings like disgust, sadness, fear and their opposites look identical on faces all over the world. This implies a biological, rather than cultural, component. Ekman catalogued the myriad involuntary muscle movements that make these faces. Here’s how they tie in to microexpressions: say you’re feeling some intense emotion like anxiety. You want to hide this, and you’re a good actor, so for the most part you’re successful; everyone who sees your face thinks you’re happy.
But at some point, you’ll still make the muscle movements that form the “anxious” expression. Anxiety might only flash on your face for a fraction of a second, but it will appear.
Ekman discovered this during slow-motion studies of videotapes.
In one famous example, he viewed a tape of a woman who’d suffered through a bout of severe depression, but insisted to her off-camera psychiatrist that she was feeling much better and not entertaining suicidal thoughts, so could she please have a weekend pass home?
The woman was lying but her doctor believed her. (Fortunately, she confessed the truth before leaving that weekend.) Ekman, while studying the tape, caught a look of utter desperation that distorted her features for only a few frames. Her microexpression told the truth where her macroexpression (and words) did not.
But Ekman, in a 2006 interview with Scientific American, cautioned that knowing what a person is feeling isn’t the same as knowing what they’re thinking. Identifying anxiety, for example, doesn’t let you know “whether a person fears that I’m seeing through their lie or that I don’t believe them when they’re telling the truth.” Or any of the other reasons they might feel anxious in an airport.
Nationwide, TSA hopes to have a total of 500 BDOs by 2008. Does Bradley International have one on staff? An airport spokesperson referred the question to local TSA administrator Daniel Lee, who sounded puzzled when he heard why the Advocate was calling. “I haven’t had the media call before” to ask about BDOs, he said. But “there is a BDO at Bradley,” though he had to check with his boss before discussing what the job entails.
Next morning he called back. “Did I say bee-DEE-oh? … I meant bee-AY-oh. Bomb Appraisal Officer.” TSA keeps a bomb guy at Bradley, Lee confirmed, but “with BDOs, we don’t tell the public whether we do or do not for obvious reasons. If a terrorist knew what airports have BDOs, they’ll avoid them.”
Lee referred further questions higher up the command chain. “I can’t give you any additional information … if you have questions about BDOs, give Ann Davis a call.”
Ann Davis, the TSA regional director in Boston, was friendly but not too informative. She spoke in generalities, and only confirmed specifics if the Advocate mentioned them first.
What does a BDO do? “The BDO is essentially a security officer trained in our SPOT program,” Davis replied. That, like her earlier mention of involuntary “physical and psychological reactions,” closely mirrors the wording on the TSA Web site, where a July 2006 press release about new career opportunities in the agency lists “Behavior Detection Officers who execute TSA’s Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT) program.”
Neither Davis nor the Web site mentioned the term “microexpressions,” but Davis, when asked, admitted that’s what all the psycho-physical wording alluded to.
But consider: Ekman’s shown a remarkable success rate finding and interpreting microexpressions — when given unlimited time to study individual tapes. That’s quite different from walking through a busy airport seeking microexpressions in the crowd.
“Well, I’m personally not trained in the techniques,” Davis said when asked about that.
Also, BDOs are reputed to work in teams; if one detects a suspicious look, for example, he’ll approach the person and try to start a conversation to glean more information. Considering how Americans are supposed to be always on alert in airports these days, it seems counterintuitive to quell suspicions of anxiety by sending a stranger to start up a chat.
Their training covers that possibility, Davis said reassuringly.
Ah, yes, the training. Ekman needed decades of experience and advanced education to achieve his microexpression proficiency. TSA agents, meanwhile, have been known to do things like confiscate a one-inch plastic gun from a child’s GI Joe doll, apparently unaware that such toy weaponry is no actual threat. How do BDOs compare to the TSA rank and file?
“Behavior Detection Officers come from our security officer corps, and receive additional training,” Davis said.
What credentials are needed to become a regular TSA security officer, then? And how much training to upgrade to the behavior detection ranks?
The minimum requirement to be a TSA security officer is “A GED or equivalent … high school equivalency,” Davis said. A BDO gets an additional “four days of classroom instruction … and on-the-job training.”
Dr. Michael Stevens did a lot more than that to become Director of Clinical Neuroscience at the Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center in Hartford. He’s also done much research on the issue of psychopaths, which is why we called him.
A psychopath in this case is loosely defined as someone who is sane, in that he’s in touch with the same reality as the rest of us, but completely lacks any conscience or sense of empathy.
Such people also lack the emotions, like fear and anxiety, which BDOs are supposed to spot, but Davis assured us a BDO would still be able to spot one. “They’re under stress,” Davis said.
“Again, the more someone tries to suppress that, the more some of it shows through.”
Stevens disagrees. “A psychopath would not feel the emotions,” that manifest themselves as microexpressions, he said.
But to be honest, the psychopath factor isn’t much of an issue when dealing with terrorists of the 9/11 sort.
“The current crop of primarily religious terrorists are not psychopaths,” says Robert Trestman, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Center. However, if such terrorists “are comfortable in their belief they will not demonstrate the anxiety … if they have come to terms with … what they are doing, the anxiety you expect won’t be there.” They won’t attract attention from the BDOs either.
So the TSA, implemented after the World Trade Center attacks to upset future terrorist plots, is hiring new agents who probably won’t have much luck in stopping terrorism. Of what use are they, then? According to Davis, they’ve had success in standard law enforcement. “The program has resulted in a lot of arrests, ranging from illegal immigrants … to individuals with drugs or large amounts of cash.” They may not stop the next Bin Laden, but college kids with marijuana brownies had better watch out.