TSA Behavior Detection and Personality Profiling

The TSA uses behavior detection in airport security
The officer killed in Friday’s shooting at Los Angeles International Airport, 39-year-old Geraldo I. Hernandez, was a TSA behavior detection officer. What is behind the science, how does it work and where does personality profiling fit in? In it’s most basic form, it is the observation of suspicious or abnormal human behavior.

These observational practices are not new; among those trained in such methods are FBI and United States Secret Service agents, private Executive Protection agents and, increasingly, law enforcement agents. Behavior detection is, in fact, a highly effective way of predicting dangerous human behavior. It is based upon the observation of facial expressions, dress, speech-patterns and body language. Even sales professionals have been trained in the basic principles of the science. Using such methods, a person’s character traits, intentions and likely responses to a given situation can be predicted. Although the methodology behind it is extensive and somewhat complex, the most general principles are fairly easy to utilize.


Personality Types and Ties

The way a person dresses indicates much about their personality and intentions. One basic technique – not directly relevant to TSA behavior detection, but taught to sales and business professionals – focuses on four basic personality types, which can be predicted even by the pattern of a man’s tie: For the purposes of effective communication in sales and business, potential clients could be divided into four basic personality types:

Driver: A “type A” personality, driven primarily by results. Not known for small-talk, the Driver tends to use direct eye contact and speaks rapidly but concisely. The Driver is a no-nonsense person; practical and decisive. Their body-language is somewhat stiff and they would tend to sit upright in chairs, lean forward and not appear casual or relaxed. Most likely, the man wearing the tie with diagonal stripes is the Driver.

Expressive: The Expressive is outgoing, sociable, enthusiastic and creative. They are people-oriented rather than focused on the methodology or the result. They will tend to use their hands extensively to express themselves when communicating. Unlike the more reserved Driver, the Expressive will have a relaxed and open posture. If a man is wearing a brightly-colored tie with random patterns, he is most likely an Expressive. The most effective sales people will usually be those who combine the qualities of the Driver and Expressive, with one being their primary personality type and the other being the secondary; Thus, a Driver Expressive or Expressive Driver.

Analytical: This is the nerd, the “boffin”, the geek – quite possibly, your accountant. The Analytical is driven by facts, figures, data and order; they will make direct eye-contact and speak slowly. In the world of the Analytical, everything is based on rational and fact-based decision-making. The guy with the symmetrical or repetitive pattern on his tie? He’s probably the Analytical type.

Amiable: Amiables, like Expressives, want to be liked and value human interaction and relationships. Where the Expressive is outgoing, opinionated and inspirational, however, the Amiable does not deal well with conflict and is more the “go along to get along” type. They like to be part of a team; they prefer to co-operate, rather than take the lead and they are more emotion-based than information-based.

Simple test to divine personality typeThe Test: Using the basic characteristics listed for each of these types to define which characterize one’s friends, family members or work colleagues, one can use a simple test to confirm predictions: Present a person with a sheet of paper, on which are four basic shapes. After displaying these shapes momentarily, challenge someone to draw two of the shapes on a piece of paper. The first shape drawn represents the primary – or dominant – type and the second shape will be their secondary type, since almost everyone has a dominant and secondary type.



More relevant to the prediction of violent behavior – and certainly something which TSA behavior detection officers, security and law enforcement personnel will pay attention to – is how a person dresses; wearing a long or heavy coat on a hot day, for example, is a potential red flag as it possibly suggests concealment of a weapon or some other potentially dangerous or illegal object. Although many civilians have the tendency to wear army surplus or tactical-type clothing, someone who dresses consistently in such a manner may be, potentially, displaying anti-social behavior. This is something of a grey area, however, since active or former military personal, law enforcement agents and private security operatives have a preference for such clothing.


Facial Expressions

Behavior detection involves the study of human facial expressions; none but the most highly-trained are adept at concealing their true thoughts or intentions, which are given away by eye-movement, the paling or flushing of the skin, perspiration, and – most importantly, what are known as “micro-expressions”, which are small, involuntary movements of facial muscles, causing tiny changes in the shape of the mouth, eyes, brow and jawline, among other things.


Body Language

Once again, this is an area most studied by sales and business professionals, but body language is highly relevant to security-related work. Posture, hand and head movements and the crossing or uncrossing of legs and arms indicate whether a person is relaxed, tense, aggressive, deceptive, honest or friendly.


There is far more to the science of behavior detection, personality profiling and the prediction of violence than the basic points mentioned here, but the TSA has begun to learn the effectiveness of such knowledge. The agency did not pioneer the use of such methods at the nation’s airports: The Israelis have been using such training for some time. “Profiling” has become a dirty word; associated with making race-based judgments about individuals. The truth, however, is that profiling is practiced regularly and is effective when used in conjunction with other forms of analysis. Pure racial profiling is not an effective means of predicting behavior or intentions, but profiling based on the manner in which a person dresses, speaks, communicates and otherwise interacts with others can be one tool in the armory of the law enforcement or security professional.

One of the most basic, but effective, methods of violence prediction is, quite simply, the observation of behavior that doesn’t “fit”; simple actions people take that appear strangely random and unrelated to the environment or the situation. The human brain picks up on such small and, seemingly, innocuous details and then transmits tiny warning signals. When one gets “a bad feeling” about a person or situation, one should consider and analyze the reason behind it, rather than merely shrugging it off. Gavin DeBecker, one of the country’s leading experts on the prediction of violent behavior, wrote an excellent book on this subject, entitled The Gift of Fear.

TSA Administrator John S. Pistole has described his agency’s use of behavior detection as “simply common sense.” Writing in USA Today in 2012, he said “Law enforcement does it every day in communities across the country and around the world.” He goes on to explain “TSA behavior-detection officers engage in casual conversations with travelers while looking and listening for behavioral cues such as facial expressions, body language or other behavior that may indicate a security risk.”

In a statement Friday, Pistole – referring to the shooting – said “No words can explain the horror that we experienced today when a shooter took the life of a member of our family and injured two TSA officers…” He visited the family of the murdered officer Saturday.

Behavior detection is part of the science of personality profiling and violence prediction that has become increasingly significant in the battle to detect and prevent terrorism and other criminal activity, even though the TSA offically denies the use of any type of profiling, it is – or should be – an essential part of how they operate. When used by well-trained and experienced practitioners, it is far more effective than requiring airline passengers to remove their shoes, prior to boarding an airplane. Currently, TSA officers appear to be neither correctly screened nor correctly trained. If, indeed, the agency has any place overseeing the nation’s transportation security, then the observation and prediction of human behavior should be one of its top priorities.


Editorial by Graham J Noble

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