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Detecting smugglers: identifying strategies and behaviours in individuals in possession of illicit objects

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Behaviour Detection Officers’ task is to spot potential criminals in public spaces, but scientific research concerning what to look for is scarce. In two experiments, 52 (Experiment 1A) and 60 (Experiment 2A) participants carried out a mission involving a ferry‐crossing. Half were asked to smuggle an object; the other half were non‐smugglers. In Experiment 2A, two confederates appeared to approach as if looking for someone on the ferry. Smugglers, more than non‐smugglers, reported afterwards to have felt nervous, self‐conscious and conspicuous and to attempt behavioural control during the ferry‐crossing. The secretly videotaped ferry‐crossings were shown to 104 (Experiment 1B) and 120 (Experiment 2B) observers, tasked to identify the smugglers. Although they reported paying attention mostly to signs of nervousness, lie detection accuracy rate was poor (48% in Experiment 1 and 39.2% in Experiment 2), because their perceptions of nervousness did not match the experiences of nervousness reported by the (non)smugglers.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)372-386
JournalApplied Cognitive Psychology
Issue number2
Early online date13 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2020


  • Detecting smugglers

    Rights statement: This is the peer reviewed version of the following article: Mann, S., Deeb, H., Vrij, A., Hope, L. and Pontigia, L. (2019), Detecting smugglers: Identifying strategies and behaviours in individuals in possession of illicit objects. Appl Cognit Psychol., ahead of print, which has been published in final form at This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for Use of Self-Archived Versions.

    Accepted author manuscript (Post-print), 2.24 MB, PDF document

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