Image: Full-body scan
Charles Rex Arbogast  /  AP
An airline passenger undergoes a full-body scan Wednesday at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.
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updated 11/23/2010 11:31:15 AM ET 2010-11-23T16:31:15

Just days shy of the biggest travel day of the year, the furor over the Transportation Security Administration's new airport screening procedures shows no sign of abating. The policy, which sometimes requires a choice between posing for semi-revealing backscatter X-ray images and submitting to a vigorous pat-down of private areas, has raised hackles both online and in real life, with one man stripping off his clothes in protest at the San Diego airport on Sunday (Nov. 21).

Another group of protestors, We Won't Fly, is calling for a national opt-out day on Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving and a boom time for travel. The group is urging passengers to jam up security lines by refusing to go through the controversial full-body scanners.

There's no single reason for the overflow of anger at the TSA: Some people cite concerns about radiation, while others worry about children being virtually stripped by scanners or patted down by strangers. Others debate how effective and necessary the TSA policies are and argue that the Fourth Amendment prevents such extensive searches.

But it's no coincidence that anger has boiled over in response to fully-body scans and full-contact pat-downs, psychologists say. Human beliefs about modesty and the sanctity of the body are influenced by culture, researchers told LiveScience, but their roots run deep.

"Physical characteristics, for men, but especially so for women, are what people are evaluated on by prospective partners," said Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan. "So it's going to be a very sensitive issue."

Society and modesty
Beliefs about what is considered modest versus immodest vary widely by culture, but most societies have some rules about what is acceptable, Kruger said. In America alone, acceptability gamut runs from the covered-up to the let-it-all-hang-out crowd, with religious groups like Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Mormons and conservative Christians advocating modest dress, while the average beachgoer is happy to bear all in a bikini or swim trunks.

Nonetheless, self-conscious emotions like shame and embarrassment develop early, said Karen Barrett, a developmental psychologist at Colorado State University. Kids start to show signs of embarrassment by about 15 months of age, Barrett told LiveScience. First, kids start to show discomfort when people stare at them; later, Barrett said, they start to learn the rules of society and feel shame when they break those rules. The taboo of nudity is one of those learned rules.

"Some kids are going to be modest at an earlier age than others, primarily because it's been emphasized in their environment," Barrett said. "It's pretty typical for 2-year-olds to feel perfectly comfortable undressing in front of whomever… but it would be unusual in our society to have someone completely unaware of it past 7 or so."

Evolution and embarrassment
The universality of these emotions has led some researchers to theorize that they're a necessary social glue, motivating us to play nice within the community. For that reason, being asked to break those rules — by stepping into a body scanner or allowing a stranger to pat your genitals — elicits a strong emotional reaction. This may be particularly true for people with medical devices or other characteristics usually kept private.

"People really do feel invaded," Kruger said.

Part of the reason, Kruger said, is that information about a person's body is integral to how other people size them up as a potential mate. People want to reveal that information strategically, Kruger said, keeping it close to the vest unless they're in the midst of courtship. Thus, being told you must reveal the pooch of your stomach or shape of your breasts to a stranger is distressing.

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Another factor, said University of California, Los Angeles evolutionary psychologist Daniel Fessler, is sexual jealousy. Human fathers put a lot of resources into their offspring, so knowing that they're investing in their own genetic offspring is important. Enforcing sexual modesty is one way to try to control female reproduction.

"In pursuit of such restriction, men favor and enforce greater sexual modesty for women than for men," Fessler wrote in an e-mail to LiveScience.

Kruger sees echoes of that pressure in the TSA screening debate.

"Women specifically have said, 'My body is something only my husband can see,'" he said. "Women want to make sure they're not being seen as promiscuous, that they're seen as faithful."

Evolution aside, the screenings strike a nerve, because choosing between a full-body scan and a pat-down isn't the same as donning a swimsuit at the beach, Barrett said.

"I think part of it is the fact that it is non-volitional. This is something they are being forced to do," Barrett said of angry travelers. "If you chose to expose yourself, that feels very different than if someone forces you to do it."

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Video: TSA battles image problem over body scanner

  1. Transcript of: TSA battles image problem over body scanner

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: The TSA is taking more heat tonight over this enhanced airline screening, the choice that fliers now face at over 60 American airports of the full-body scan or the full-body pat-down. Some airline passenger groups are urging travelers to take part in a kind of act of civil disobedience and opt out of both, the scans and the pat-downs, during next week's Thanksgiving rush. But the head of the TSA said tonight people won't be allowed to duck the scans or pat-downs, even if they try to do so on religious grounds. Our own Tom Costello , who covers aviation for us, is in our Washington newsroom tonight. Tom , good evening.

    TOM COSTELLO reporting: Hi, Brian. That was the question put to the TSA chief on Capitol Hill today. And the message from him was no passenger can be allowed to circumvent the full-body scanners or the pat-downs even on religious grounds. If anyone who refuses to fly -- pardon me, if anyone refuses, they simply won't be allowed to fly. It may be a matter of bad timing. The TSA 's new very personal pat-downs have started just as it rolls out its 385th full-body scanner in the nation's airports, catching airline crews and passengers off guard. In Kansas City , Trish Wimmer thought her pat-down got way too personal.

    Ms. TRISH WIMMER: When she went up my legs and used her hand to go up my skirt, that's when I freaked out.

    COSTELLO: Amid growing passenger concern, the man who runs the TSA today told Congress finding the delicate balance between security and privacy is a constant challenge.

    Mr. JOHN PISTOLE (Transportation Security Administration Administrator): I think everybody who gets on a flight wants to ensure and be assured that everybody else around them has been properly screened.

    COSTELLO: Now an Internet led call for passengers to resist the new TSA procedures over the Thanksgiving holiday has the TSA and airlines on alert. The concern, if a significant number of passengers elect to boycott the scanners and the pat-downs, security delays could grow and travelers could miss their flights. AAA today predicted 1.6 million passengers will fly over Thanksgiving week, 400,000 more than last year.

    Mr. ROBERT DARBELNET (AAA President and CEO): I think we would all be concerned because the potential to make those lines even longer and that day even more difficult for people is real.

    COSTELLO: While the TSA chief now suggests pilots could soon be exempt from going through full-body scanners, pilots insist their passengers should be scanned or patted down.

    Mr. JAMES RAY (United States Airline Pilots Association Spokesman): As a pilot I can tell you, I definitely want my passengers to go through some sort of screening.

    COSTELLO: A recent poll found 81 percent of Americans support the use of full-body scanners. But, Brian , that doesn't mean that they like them.

    WILLIAMS: Tom Costello in Washington tonight. Tom , thanks.

Photos: Holiday Travel

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    Above: Slideshow (6) Holiday Travel
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    Slideshow (6) Airport Body Searches

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