Applying Theories from Cognitive Psychology to Reduce Firearms and Prohibited Items Discoveries at Security Screening Checkpoints

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Suk YI

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Homeland security practitioners and their partners have invested a considerable amount of time and resources in improving aviation passenger security screening. An area that has drawn growing attention is the increasing firearm discoveries at the nation’s security screening checkpoints (hereafter “security checkpoints”). Professionals’ attempts to better secure the security checkpoints have primarily evolved around obtaining better technologies at the security checkpoints and providing better training to their employees. However, an area that homeland security professionals could focus more attention on is why passengers are mistakenly bringing their firearm into security checkpoints, what cognitive processes are behind the unintentional carry of firearms in this situation, and related mitigation strategies.
Many passengers who have been detained or even arrested at security checkpoints indicate that they “forgot” they had the firearm when they entered the security checkpoint. Considering these types of statements, how can homeland security practitioners make sense of these assertions? To be more effective and efficient in countering these types of security violations, homeland security professionals need to understand how and why memory fails, and what can be done to help mitigate such memory failures. This thesis, therefore, seeks to better understand the cognitive reasons of why individuals are forgetting to remove firearms or prohibited items prior to entering a security screening checkpoint. Moreover, the thesis provides concepts and strategies from cognitive psychology to design strategies that seek to mitigate forgetting to remove prohibited items before entering secure passenger aviation areas due to memory failures.
The thesis seeks to answer the following research questions: 1-Are firearm and prohibited item discoveries at security checkpoints the result of memory failures? If so, what type of memory failure is the most common? 2-Which factors contribute to memory failures? 3-How can theories in cognitive psychology assist homeland security practitioners in developing policies and related practices to mitigate firearm and prohibited item discoveries at the nation’s security checkpoints?
In answering these questions, this thesis employed a qualitative research design to better understand human behaviors and motivations. The data and evidence for this thesis originated from multiple sources to include news articles from publicly available open-source internet posts from individuals who were detained at security checkpoints. The study captured, analyzed, and identified common themes on reasons why individuals arrive at a security checkpoint with a prohibited item. The thesis reviewed cognitive psychologists’ research on the contributing factors that lead to memory failures to assist homeland security practitioners in better understanding the causes of memory failures; and, the thesis reviewed literature to determine how individuals can improve prospective memory performance. Furthermore, the thesis employed a thought experiment to test the concepts and strategies from cognitive psychology. The experiment allowed for refining and clarifying of the recommendations.
In the literature review, the thesis analyzed the evolving schools of thought in the field of attention and memory. The thesis covered Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin’s classical theory of a short and long-term memory system. Their system of multiple stores of memory laid the foundation for many studies in cognitive psychology. Second, the literature review covered Alan Baddeley’s working memory model. Baddeley’s working memory model built on Atkinson and Shiffrin’s model and has received wide acceptance in the field of cognitive psychology. Third, the literature review covered the underpinnings of prospective memory. The study of prospective memory investigates how individuals’ complete future intended tasks. These key theoretical frameworks in cognitive psychology served as a foundation and set the structure for this thesis.
Through the research, it revealed the following answers for the first thesis question. In analyzing multiple cases, the thesis concluded that many firearm and prohibited item discoveries at security checkpoints were the result of memory failures. The research revealed that memory failures, specifically prospective memory failures, are the most common type of memory failures in people’s daily lives. Considering air travelers who have been detained created an intention to remove prohibited items from their carry-on luggage, and they did not follow through on the intention, the thesis analyzed that the passengers experienced a prospective memory failure. In regards to the second question, the research revealed that common factors that contribute to memory failures include demanding conditions such as interruptions, multitasking, and delaying action or procrastination.
In regards to the third question, the research revealed that theories from cognitive psychology can assist homeland security practitioners in developing policies and related practices to mitigate firearm and prohibited item discoveries at the nation’s security checkpoints. The Scholars offered several theories to explain how and when people remember to complete prospective memory tasks. (1) The theories were monitoring, spontaneous retrieval, multiprocess theory, and the Dynamic Multiprocess Framework. (2) The thesis assessed that the Dynamic Multiprocess Framework synthesized the theories and was effective in explaining prospective memory performance. (3) The thesis then observed that individuals are more likely to remember to complete task when they perceived the task as being salient; cues which are distinctive and unfamiliar enhance prospective memory performance. Furthermore, removing unnecessary delays and the use of external reminding devices such as mnemonics enhance prospective memory performance. Scholars posited that if individuals encode information at a deeper level, individuals were more likely to retain and retrieve the information at a later time. Finally, the thesis observed that due to the increasing use of personal electronic devices, homeland security professionals could leverage existing technologies to assist in mitigating prohibited item discoveries at security checkpoints.
Additionally, the thesis conducted a thought experiment. The thought experiment was valuable to the thesis because it allowed for testing of the mitigation concepts and strategies. Following the thought experiment, the thesis provided examples on when and how the mitigation concepts and strategies could be deployed to the passengers and at the airports. Moreover, the thought experiment revealed new insights to include other homeland security practitioners that can assist in mitigating prohibited item discoveries at the nation’s airports.

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