Assessing the Real Risk of TSA Pat-Downs

LIST: Six Things to Know Before Your TSA Pat Down John Moore / Getty Images

In an age of terror, we need to do everything we can to keep our citizens safe, including scans and screening procedures. At least so say the security consultants, who argue that more see-through-your-clothes screenings and extensive pat-downs are a small price to pay to protect the flying public from bad guys with bombs. A vocal group of passengers and activists, however, argues that the risks of the scans—including radiation exposure, psychological trauma, and eroding civil liberties—are worse than the threat of a terrorist attack. How can the same tradeoff be interpreted so differently? Shouldn’t a careful, fact-based risk assessment be able to figure out what’s in our overall best interest?

Nope. And not just because there are too many unknowns to come up with a definitive answer. The real problem with thinking about risk is that “thinking“ is only part of the equation: the perception of risk is a feeling, not a fact. When it comes to the new TSA screenings, figuring out how worried we are or aren’t depends on a number of psychological factors, not just probabilities and statistics.

In the age of shoe bombers and liquid bombers and underwear bombers and, just a few weeks ago, toner-cartridge bombers, terrorism is still a very real threat. But because these attempts failed, thanks to better security and general ineptitude, the threat feels less relevant than it did just after 9/11. Studies of the psychology of risk perception by Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon and the leading expert in this field, have found that fear fades as awareness does, and fortunately we have not seen actual planes blown up by terrorists for nine years. Those studies, as well as those done by Slovic and his colleagues, also find that fear is greater when there are actual victims than when the risk is presented as an idea. While the toner bomb was detected before any real damage was done, it’s been 110 months since we first saw the faces and learned the names of the nearly 3,000 real victims of the 9/11 attacks, (A recent Washington Post–ABC poll found that fear of terrorism against planes is as low as it has been since Sept. 11, 2001, at 30 percent. Not surprisingly, it also found that people who are more worried about the threat of terrorism are more willing to live with new security screenings than those who report being less worried about terrorism.)

seat-selection LIST: How airlines are racking up the fees. Illustration by NEWSWEEK

The fading memory of 9/11 means that, for some people, the idea of being blown up on a plane doesn’t seem as scary these days. But the idea of being exposed to radiation by body scanners remains a big concern. The concept of radiation is stigmatized, one that instantly triggers subconscious fearful associations with bombs and power-plant catastrophes and cancer. (And cancer itself triggers strong worries, as does any risk associated with acute pain and suffering.) On top of that, we can’t detect radiation or the immediate damage it’s doing to our bodies—and the feeling of having no control over a threat, no way to protect ourselves, makes any risk scarier.

Never mind that passengers will get more cosmic radiation exposure in just a few minutes of the flight than from the backscatter X-ray scan. Risks feel scarier if they are imposed on us; in-flight cosmic radiation is voluntary, so we accept it. The scanner dose is imposed against our will. So, low as it is, it feels more threatening. The TSA tried to respect that by giving people the choice of a pat-down, but being intimately inspected by a stranger hardly feels like something you’d choose.

So for some, particularly those who have grown complacent, the risks of these new procedures outweigh their security benefit. The Washington Post survey found that to avoid being X-rayed or frisked, one person out of 10 plans to avoid flying. Some of those people will end up doing more driving, which is actually riskier than air travel but feels safer because being behind the wheel conveys a sense of control, which is reassuring. But that feeling is an illusion, especially as more and more people pick driving over flying: A University of Michigan study found that roughly 1,000 more people, or 9 percent, died on the roads in America in the three months following 9/11 than would have been expected. But we can’t just say people are too emotional to know what’s in their own best interest and hand all risk decision making over to paternalistic technocrats who ignore how we feel, either. Look how that’s working out for the TSA.

The real solution is for the government to take into account the emotional context of the risk-management policies they’re considering. How well those policies work is going to depend, in part, on how they feel to the people affected. The TSA says it’s looking for ways to adjust the new screening to respond to public concerns. Why didn’t they put that sort of thought into things beforehand? It’s not as though they weren’t aware of our dangerous complacency about terrorism, or couldn’t anticipate our well-established concern about radiation and our resistance to imposed risks. Instead of appealing to these emotions, however, the TSA has thus far tried to rely on facts and practicalities: these procedures are based on best evidence, they say, and are a logical measure in a society with heightened terrorism risk.

But because they ignored the emotional component of risk management, this controversy will only make it harder for the TSA to keep us safe from bad guys with bombs. Trust in the organization has diminished, and top officials have had to spend time doing damage control instead of focusing on preventing terrorist attacks. The security experts may be able to figure out the best way to stop terrorism, but the experts in risk perception should also have a voice in how risk-management policy is made, communicated, and put into effect. After all, what good are best policies if the public those policies are designed to protect refuses to adhere to them?

David Ropeik is an instructor at Harvard, a Consultant in Risk Perception and Risk Management, and author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match The Facts.