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Study: Don’t Let Gamers Do Airport Screening

December 10, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Diagnostic Imaging
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Airport screeners may be bad at detecting dangerous objects that show up only rarely in carry-on luggage. Or maybe only people who pretend to be airport screeners have that problem.

Duke University researchers were unable to study how often actual airport screeners miss deadly contraband, for obvious reasons. So they instead analyzed data from the $1.99 smartphone game Airport Scanner, created by Kedlin Co. Players have limited time to try to spot prohibited items among the earphones and underwear in simulated X-rays of carry-on baggage.

The results might make you nervous about flying. Stephen Mitroff, PhD, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience and a faculty member at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, summed up the findings:

We’re seeing that people are really bad at finding items that are not likely to appear.

Dr. Mitroff was quoted in a Duke news release.

The Airport Scanner game players were good at noticing items that appeared as little as 1 percent of the time—achieving a 92 percent success rate. But for items that appeared less than 0.15 percent of the time, the success rate dropped to 27 percent. Dr. Mitroff said the latter frequency is comparable to how often some indications of cancer appear in real-life radiological screenings.

So the players usually found the occasional pocketknife or bottle of shampoo larger than 3 ounces. But the really rare and really dangerous items, such as guns or sticks of dynamite, tended to sneak through.

“If you don’t see something very often, it makes sense that you don’t want to waste energy looking for it,” Dr. Mitroff said, “but at the end of the day you still want to detect some of these ultra-rare items.”

Yeah … but real-life airport screeners—and, for that matter, real-life radiologists—are trained to look for those items. Some random 13-year-old who plays the game on the way to school in his mom’s minivan is not. We think there’s considerable doubt about the applicability of these data to actual airport screening. You can check out the study in Psychological Science, where it was published online November 22, and decide for yourself.

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