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It's Relatively Easy to Spot Water Bottles in Airport Scanners; Guns, Not So Much

Researchers plan to examine whether the same tendencies to overlook uncommon items exist among trained TSA professionals, just as it does gamers

A screenshot from the game Airport Scanner. Photo: Airport Scanner by Kedlin

Airport baggage screening, apparently, can be fun. So much so that a company named Kedlin created a smartphone game called Airport Scanner. The game challenges players to spot some 80 items prohibited on real-life flights—liquids, scissors, explosives, guns and other weapons. But the gamers' skill at picking out the rarest—and, often, most dangerous—objects proved to be "disturbingly poor," according to new research.

Duke University scientists analyzed 20 million data points provided by the game's creators. The less often the illegal objects appeared in luggage scans, the researchers found, the slighter the chance that players would spot and identify them. Just 27 percent of players pinpointed illegal objects that appeared in fewer than 0.15 percent of images, compared to 92 percent of players that spotted prohibited objects that appeared in more than 1 percent of images.

"This isn't a matter of overall vigilance or how frequently players responded, since half of the searches had a to-be-found item present," psychologist Stephen Mitroff told MedicalExpress. "This effect is about being able to detect specific items and how likely you are to miss them when they occur infrequently."

The authors didn't test professional airport scanners. But they do think this could mean that TSA agents become skilled at catching prohibited but relatively harmless objects, like water bottles and pocket knives, that regularly turn up in bags, while passing over rarer yet more threatening items. The same could hold true for other professionals searching images for rare anomalies, like, for instance, dangerous tumors on medical scans.

"Extraordinarily low search performance for these extraordinarily rare targets—what we term the ultra-rare-item effect—is troubling given that radiological and security-screening searches are primarily ultra-rare-item searches," the authors write.

The researchers plan to examine whether these tendencies to overlook uncommon items exist among trained TSA professionals. If so, the Airport Scanner game could potentially be incorporated into training activities to help bolster these pros' skills, they say.

More from Smithsonian.com:

If Your Plane Is Going Down, It's Better to Sit in the Back  
If You Have a Medical Emergency on a Plane, Chances Are That a Fellow Passenger Will Treat You

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