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Visual search at the airport: Testing TSA officers

Mitroff, Stephen R; Biggs, Adam T; Cain, Matthew S; Darling, Elise F; Clark, Kait; Adamo, Stephen H; Dowd, Emma Wu


Stephen R Mitroff

Adam T Biggs

Matthew S Cain

Elise F Darling

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Dr Kait Clark
Lecturer in Psychology (Cognitive and Neuro)

Stephen H Adamo

Emma Wu Dowd


A significant challenge for laboratory-based research is to adequately replicate conditions found in the real world. Likewise, a challenge for field-based research is to appropriately maintain the precision and control found within the laboratory. These hurdles are easily noticed when studying visual search, the act of finding a target amongst distractors. Decades of laboratory-based research have revealed many factors affecting visual search (see Nakayama & Martini, 2011 for a recent review); yet, these ‘sterile’ tasks conducted with novice participants can at times bear little resemblance to the tasks of professional searchers such as baggage screeners, radiologists, lifeguards, and military personnel. Conversely, conducting research with expert searchers in their natural environment can be logistically complex, which limits the scope of questions that can be asked. We are bridging this gap by conducting laboratory-based research with professional, expert searchers: employed Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. We have established a cognitive psychology laboratory within the airport, and the TSA officers participate in our research studies during their normal work hours. We are assessing a variety of visual and attentional abilities, including several measures of visual search. For example, in one task we employed a simplified visual search experiment to directly compare novice searchers (Duke University undergraduates) to expert searchers (TSA officers). Participants looked for ‘T’s amongst ‘L’s with set sizes of 8, 16, 24, and 32. Compared to undergraduates, TSA officers were slower to respond, with search slopes approximately 1.5 times larger. Importantly, the TSA agents were also more accurate at each set size, suggesting a greater search diligence. Through tasks such as these, combined with measures of individual differences (e.g., personality and clinical assessments), the goal of this project is to inform both cognitive theories of visual search and the TSA’s standard operating procedures.

Presentation Conference Type Conference Paper (unpublished)
Start Date May 1, 2012
Publication Date Aug 1, 2012
Peer Reviewed Not Peer Reviewed
APA6 Citation Mitroff, S. R., Biggs, A. T., Cain, M. S., Darling, E. F., Clark, K., Adamo, S. H., & Dowd, E. W. (2012, May). Visual search at the airport: Testing TSA officers. Paper presented at Vision Sciences Society
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Additional Information Title of Conference or Conference Proceedings : Vision Sciences Society