The “Underwear Bomber” Incident – My Two Cents

Almost everyone has written or talked ad nauseum about Abdul, etc. so I might as well weigh in.  I am reminded of one of our customers in the carpet hauling business where they would put carpet on a truck containing what was to the managers an obvious error.  They would then ship it so that it had to pass through many hands as it was moved from Dalton, GA to San Francisco, CA.  I really believe that the Quality/Customer Service managers hoped that it made it all the way to California, because that way they could chew ass from coast to coast, their big positive reinforcer.

Certainly with Abdul there was plenty of positive reinforcement to go around all the talk shows and bloggers.  Fire or not fire.  Reorganize, or not reorganize.  Change the procedures or not change them.  The ideas were legion.

In my opinion, firing would accomplish nothing, except increase blame and hiding mistakes.  Reorganizing would just lead to more reorganizing in the future wasting time and taxpayer dollars.  Changing the procedures would be useless if you don’t understand why the current procedures are not being followed.  No, to me the problem is a rare error problem and because there is little understanding of the behavioral processes that produce the rare error, these errors will continue to occur, often with disastrous consequences.

Think for a moment of the number of people on the “no-fly list.”  Although the actual number on the list is secret, the guesses range from a few thousand to tens of thousands.  Even if the number is 100,000 that number is a very small percentage of the number passengers flying daily.

It is estimated that there are about 2,000,000 people flying every day.  When you consider that only a fraction of those on the No Fly list fly, on any given day, it is possible that a million or more people could be screened without encountering a No-flier.  The behavioral problem is that looking for something that almost never occurs produces extinction of the “looking behavior.”  No matter how vigilant the performer tries to be, the low number of reinforcers produced by such low rates of occurrence is almost guaranteed to produce an absence of the desirable behaviors at all levels of the process.

The sad thing is that behavior analysts know how to keep employees throughout the TSA chain vigilant and even enthusiastic about that kind of behavior.  The technology requires training to the level of fluency and then following up with exposure in the real situation at frequencies high enough to maintain vigilance.  I suspect that TSA screeners are not trained to fluency and that “checks” are too infrequent to create high levels of alertness.

The problem is that the actions by the President and the various agencies will appear to work because the problem occurs at such at such an infrequent rate.  In other words, there might not be another incident for a couple of years if the government does nothing.

I continue to sound the same alarm.  Until executives in the security system understand behavior as a science, there is not a chance that the system will attain and maintain the integrity that the public expects.  Let’s just hope that we don’t continue to repeat the same solutions that don’t have a prayer of working in the long term before someone realizes that there is a behavioral solution.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.