Human Perception and Decision Making

A number of DHS occupations (e.g., baggage screening, incident command) require sustained vigilance and share four main characteristics: The individual must be vigilant to potentially subtle or rare occurrences; There may be high stakes for missing subtle or rare, but relevant items; The individual’s responses do not influence subsequent occurrences; The individual might be required to stay “on task” for extended periods of time.

Similarly, it is often critical for Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employees to be sensitive to the presence of a threat. Whether a threat presents itself at a personal level or a more global level, the more sensitive employees are to the threat, the more likely it can be averted.



“Training That Addresses Individual Differences in Sustained Vigilance Tasks”
Robert Hubal, Stephen Mitroff, Matt Cain, Ryan DeWitt

Relatively little research has focused on individual differences in vigilance. Some literature suggests individual differences may exist in the ability to maintain vigilance when searching for a rare target over long time periods. Two recent studies by the team suggest that both age and experience with action video games can influence accuracy at finding rarely present targets. Experience with action video games has recently been shown to influence visual perception and attention quite broadly, with research showing that even real-world tasks such as certain surgeries can be influenced by prior video game experiences. However, it is still an open question whether some individuals can, or when they can, maintain vigilance fairly easily while others cannot and exactly what factors might lead to these differences.

Link to Presentation
Link to Report
Link to Final Report

Establishing the Feasibility of Job Proficiency Work Sample Testing for Critical DHS Jobs and Job Tasks”
Jerry W. Hedge, Brooke M. Whiteford, Dawn M. Ohse

The processes involved in decision making have traditionally been conceptualized as based on a rational and deliberate evaluation of the situation at hand. Unfortunately, many decisions in the real world are not arrived at in this way, and even on simple problems people often make inconsistent decisions, ignore relevant information, and place greater emphasis on some aspects of the decision than is reasonable. Recent literature suggests that there may be substantial promise in improving the decision making process through the application of strategies beyond traditional rational approaches. One objective of this research and development project is to better understand the measurement components that will lead to the most effective, efficient, and accurate assessment of decision-making. In addition, the development of a virtual world (VW) environment may provide an ideal platform for this application because one can control the immerse environment presented to the subjects as they begin the decision-making process. Therefore, a second objective is to establish the feasibility of using a virtual world environment as a test bed for examining decision making in its various forms.

Link to Presentation
Link to Final Report

Identifying Predictive Markers of Individual Differences in Threat Sensitivity”
Stephen Mitroff, Ahmad Hariri

It is often critical for Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employees to be sensitive to the presence of a threat. Whether a threat presents itself at a personal level (such as in the one-on-one interactions that occur at border crossings and airports) or a more global level (such as in general monitoring for impending danger or disaster), the more sensitive employees are to the threat, the more likely it can be averted. Due to natural predisposition and/or personal experiences, some individuals are more sensitive to the presence of a threat than others. The goal of this proposal is to examine how to quickly and affordably identify high threat sensitivity individuals before they are charged with critical DHS duties. With recent advances in neurogenetics research, and the expertise and resources available to our team, we can explore here whether specific genetic markers mapping onto variability in brain structure and function as well as dispositional behavioral characteristics (e.g., personality) are predictive of increased threat sensitivity.

Link to Presentation (November 2010)


Different Predictors of Multiple-Target Search Accuracy between Nonprofessional and Professional Visual Searchers”
Stephen Mitroff, PhD and Adam T. Biggs, PhD
Published 12/09/2013

Visual search, locating target items among distractors, underlies daily activities ranging from critical tasks (e.g., looking for dangerous objects during security screening) to commonplace ones (e.g., finding your friends in a crowded bar). Both professional and nonprofessional individuals conduct visual searches, and the present investigation is aimed at understanding how they perform similarly and differently.

Mitroff and Biggs administered a multiple-target visual search task to both professional (airport security officers) and nonprofessional participants to determine how search abilities differ between these populations and what factors might predict accuracy. There were minimal overall accuracy differences, although the professionals were generally slower to respond. Mitroff and Biggs found both non-professional and professional searchers are worse at finding a second target after having found a first target in a display (satisfaction of search errors), however, different factors drive performance. Non-professionals’ accuracy was largely driven by speed, with those who responded slower being more accurate at finding a second target. Professionals’ second target accuracy was largely driven by consistency with those who engaged in their searches in the same way from trial to trial being more accuracy.

These findings suggest that professional searchers may utilize different search strategies from those of nonprofessionals, and that search consistency, in particular, may provide a valuable tool for enhancing professional search accuracy.

Link to Research Brief

The Ultra-Rare-Item Effect: Visual Search for Exceedingly Rare Items Is Highly Susceptible to Error”
Stephen Mitroff, PhD
Published 11/22/2013

Research shows scanners are likely to miss “ultra” rare items in baggage.  By assessing search performance across millions of trials from the Airport Scanner smartphone application, Mitroff and Briggs demonstrate that the detection of ultra-rare items was disturbingly poor.  Extraordinarily low search performance for these extraordinarily rare targets—what Mitroff and Briggs term the ultra-rare-item effect—is troubling given that radiological and security-screening searches are primarily ultra-rare-item searches.

The report reveals how target prevalence has been linked to increased search errors since target items are rarely present, detection rates are troublingly low for illegal items such as firearms.

Link to Research Brief

Identifying Predictive Markers of Field Performance: The Potential Role of Individual Differences in Threat Sensitivity”
Stephen Mitroff, PhD
Published 03/04/2010

This research brief examines the recent advances in neurogenetics research that are poised to address the challenge of how best to preselect individuals who will exhibit high levels of threat sensitivity. Recent research has highlighted how the integration of behavioral, neural, and genetic markers can uniquely reveal the mechanisms that give rise to individual differences, and this brief explores the relevance of this work in establishing predictive markers of increased threat sensitivity.

Link to Research Brief

Trust Calibration for Automated Decision Aids”
Maranda McBride, PhD
Published 03/12/2010

Given the variety of complex situations that arise in the context of homeland security where uncertainty and vulnerability persist, it is essential that measures be taken to enhance the safety of U.S. citizens. Various new technological devices likely to be developed to meet the needs of this “war on terror” era include data mining technology, communication systems, hazard detection devices, command and control systems, screening technologies, and biometric identification systems. All of these devices will rely on some form of automation and are designed to expedite the decision making process; thus, it is suitable to refer to them as automated decision aids (ADAs). The intent of ADAs is to enable users to make timely decisions by providing pertinent information in a more efficient manner than a human being working alone can achieve. Unfortunately, no matter how robust the design, it is likely that ADA software is going to fall short of expectations at some time. In such cases, decision makers begin to view the ADA as ineffective and develop a level of distrust in the system. Decision makers with properly calibrated trust are essential in order to prevent many of the adverse consequences associated with both automation disuse and misuse. Thus one of the primary research questions to be investigated is, What are the most effective methods of ADA trust calibration?

Link to Research Brief

Aging and Top-Down Attentional Control in Visual Search”
David Madden, PhD
Published 04/29/2010

Many visual tasks, such as airport baggage screening, rely heavily on the ability to accurately and efficiently search for and detect target items amongst distractors. It is critical to the mission of the Human Factors/Behavior Sciences Division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to be able to assess and maintain this skill set in those employed as baggage screeners. Basic and applied research in visual search has yielded an extensive body of knowledge regarding the human- and task-dependent variables contributing to search performance. In particular, previous research suggests that the efficiency of visual search varies significantly as a function of increasing adult age. With increasing age, elementary sensory/motor performance (i.e., “bottom-up” processing) declines, whereas reliance on experience and knowledge of task-relevant goals (i.e., “top-down” attention) tends to increase. To date, only studies of younger adult observers have been published. In addition, the relative contributions of top-down and bottom-up variables to rare target search have not been investigated. Thus, to optimize rare target search in applied settings, such as baggage screening, research is needed that investigates the potential contributions of both adult age and top-down attentional control.

Link to Research Brief

Individual Differences in Vigilance Tasks”
Robert Hubal, PhD
Published 05/11/2009

Within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a number of occupations (e.g., baggage screening, passenger screening, dispatch, incident command) require sustained levels of attention by an individual – what is termed “vigilance” in this paper – and share several characteristics. Relatively little research has focused on individual differences in vigilance. Some literature suggests individual differences may exist in the ability to maintain vigilance for a rare target over long time periods. However, it is an open question whether some individuals can maintain vigilance fairly easily while others cannot. This brief addresses the following questions: Are there individual differences in the inherent ability to sustain vigilance, and what are the most effective approaches for training and improving sustained vigilance for rare items or events?

Link to Research Brief

“Job Proficiency Work Sample Testing for Critical DHS Jobs and Job Tasks”
Jerry Hedge, PhD
Published 05/11/2009

The Department of Homeland Security works to anticipate, preempt, detect, and deter threats to the homeland. Consequently, vigilance is a primary aspect of many “front-line” jobs oriented toward detection and prevention, where employees must pay close and sustained attention and maintain that attentiveness over time. Often this is to be found in some form of “watchkeeping” activity when an observer, or listener, must continuously monitor a situation in which significant, but usually infrequent and unpredictable, events may occur. Exclusive reliance on objective measures tends to be deficient in terms of adequate coverage of the performance domain. This research brief examines an alternative (simulation environments for work sample testing) to traditional approaches that DHS can employ to identify task-specific competency levels within key jobs and ensure that proficiency is maintained at high levels for these critical job components.

Link to Research Brief

“Adversarial Risk Analysis: Decision Making When There Is Uncertainty During Conflict”
David Banks, PhD
Published 06/15/2009

Counterterrorism requires decision makers to allocate defensive resources in situations for which the kind of attack and the likely consequence of an attack are unknown. The two current tools for analyzing such problems are inadequate. Classical game theory assumes that the costs and benefits are known, does not use partial information (e.g., military intelligence), and produces results that humans find unrealistic. Statistical risk analysis assumes that the adversary is “nature” rather than an intelligent opponent who seeks to exploit weaknesses. Neither approach takes explicit account of resource constraints under which managers must operate. This research brief focuses on new strategies, particularly Bayesian versions of game theory, for repairing these deficiencies.

Link to Research Brief

“Rational Choice Models of Political Violence: The Role of Injustice and Retribution”
Jeremy Bray, PhD
Published 09/30/2009

Rational choice theory, a cornerstone of economic theory for more than a century, has been largely dismissed as having relevance to the study of political violence, especially when applied to individuals rather than to groups. Yet rational choice theory offers many benefits to policymakers attempting to prevent political violence: it can place political violence within a continuum that ranges from tacit approval of violence, to nonviolent explicit support, to actual participation in violent acts. This brief argues that rational choice models can be usefully extended to explore the role that revenge seeking plays in individuals’ choices to engage in political violence.

Link to Research Brief

“Can Intuitive Decision Making Improve Homeland Security?”
Jerry Hedge, PhD
Published 12/08/2009

Judgmental processes involved in risk perception and decision making have traditionally been conceptualized as cognitive in nature, being based upon a rational and deliberate evaluation of the situation at hand. Conversely, research from diverse literatures suggests that intuitive decision-making may offer an alternative behavioral strategy in some situations. A variety of different occupations within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) require job incumbents to confront situations that are both novel and time-sensitive, suggesting the likely benefits of research on intuitive decision-making and application directed at jobs such as border patrol agents and airport screeners. This brief critically evaluates the current state of scientific knowledge of intuitive decision-making, with a view to refining the way in which the construct may be operationalized in future work and gaining a better understanding of how intuition may best be developed, assessed, and applied within DHS.

Link to Research Brief

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