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Screeners miss the really rare stuff: Commonly found objects may be crowding out identification of the unusual items

Posted December 4, 2013
Screeners miss the really rare stuff
A screen shot from the smartphone game Airport Scanner shows simulated baggage screening. There’s part of a handgun in this bag. Duke researchers used more than 20 million bag searches from the game to discover that very rare items often go undetected. Credit: Airport Scanner by Kedlin
A smartphone app that turns gamers into airport baggage screeners is showing that finding weapons and other illegal items isn’t all that easy, even when you’re looking for them.

Duke University researchers analyzed data from searches of 20 million virtual suitcases in the game Airport Scanner created by Kedlin Co. and found that users failed in most cases to identify objects that occurred only rarely.

“We’re seeing that people are really bad at finding items that are not likely to appear,” said Stephen Mitroff, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience and member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

In the game, players scan images that look like X-rays of carry-on luggage, trying to find hundreds of possible items, including guns and dynamite sticks, as well as over-sized bottles and scissors.

For this study – which appears online in Psychological Science – researchers evaluated gameplay data from December 2012 to March 2013 to determine how often the players found 78 different illegal items in light of how often the items appeared. Investigators used target frequencies (the appearance rate of a specific illegal object) to understand a player’s success at identifying targets when they appear.

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