How Phishing Uses Your Cognitive Biases Against You

by | Oct 16, 2023 | RidgeBot

Phishing attacks account for a considerable amount of data breaches. It’s not just random luck that makes these scams successful. Phishing often targets the cognitive biases hardwired into people’s brains. 

By understanding the psychological tricks that make phishing so effective, you can arm yourself and your organization against this pervasive threat. This article explains how phishing exploits specific cognitive biases and provides actionable strategies for turning these weaknesses into strengths. 

What Is Phishing? 

Phishing is a cyber-attack where attackers impersonate a trustworthy source to steal sensitive information. The goal is often to trick the recipient into sharing passwords, credit card numbers or other valuable data. It’s a crafty way to exploit human psychology rather than technological flaws. 

Typical phishing attacks include email phishing, spear phishing and website cloning. Email phishing casts a wide net, targeting many people at once. Spear phishing is more focused on targeting a specific individual or organization. Website cloning involves replicating a trusted website to capture login details or other sensitive data. 

Cognitive Biases Explained 

Cognitive biases are mental shortcuts for human decision-making. These mental frameworks are usually advantageous but can lead individuals to make poor choices. In the context of phishing attacks, these biases become vulnerabilities attackers can exploit. 

The susceptibility to phishing heightens when third parties manipulate these shortcuts. For instance, phishing emails may pose as messages from authoritative figures, leading people to comply without second thoughts. 

1. Reciprocity 

Reciprocity bias is the psychological tendency to return a favor when someone does something nice. Phishing attacks may manifest as an attacker offering something of value — like a free e-book or a gift card — in exchange for personal information or login credentials. 

In the corporate environment, an email might offer a “free industry report” if the recipient clicks a link and logs in. The catch is the link leads to a phishing site to capture login details. Because of the offered “favor,” the recipient may feel inclined to reciprocate by following the instructions. 

Organizations should teach employees to scrutinize unsolicited offers and verify their sources before taking action. Technical safeguards — like multi-factor authentication — can also add an extra layer of security, making it more challenging for phishers to exploit this bias. 

2. Authority 

Authority bias refers to the tendency to place higher trust in messages or instructions from authority figures. In phishing attacks, scammers often impersonate executives, IT departments or government agencies to trick recipients into compliance. 

For example, an employee might receive an email that appears to come from the CEO, asking for urgent action like transferring funds or sharing confidential information. Because the request seems to come from a trusted authority, the employee is more likely to comply without questioning the email’s authenticity. 

Corporations can train staff to double-check by contacting the purported sender through a separate channel, like a phone call. Implementing technical measures — like email authentication — can also help flag or filter out impersonating emails. 

3. Scarcity 

Scarcity bias is the psychological impulse to act quickly when people think something is in limited supply or time is running out. Phishing attacks can appear as urgent messages saying an account will be locked or a special offer will expire soon. 

In a corporate setting, you might see emails warning that your password will expire in an hour or they have selected you for an “exclusive offer” only available to the first few respondents. These tactics create a sense of urgency, bypassing logical scrutiny. 

Train employees to take a moment to double-check any urgent email requests or offers. Use secure channels to confirm the authenticity of the message. It’s also beneficial to have automated security measures that can flag or quarantine suspicious emails. 

How to Protect Your Corporation 

Training and awareness programs are vital in educating employees about the types of phishing attacks and the cognitive biases that make them effective. Regular workshops, simulation exercises and updates can keep the staff well-informed and prepared to identify phishing attempts. 

On the technical side, implementing safeguards — like multi-factor authentication, email filtering and secure browsing tools — can offer an extra layer of protection. These measures can catch phishing attempts before they reach the employees or alert them if something seems off. 

Continuous vigilance is imperative because phishing tactics are ever-evolving. Employees need to stay alert, and systems require regular updates to adapt to new types of attacks. Combining human vigilance and technological safeguards creates a robust defense against phishing. 

Guard the Mind to Secure the Network 

Phishing attacks cunningly exploit cognitive biases — like reciprocity, authority and scarcity — to manipulate people’s decisions. By understanding these biases, corporations can implement effective counter-strategies that blend human awareness with technical safeguards. 

Training programs and multi-factor authentication can go a long way. Furthermore, tools like RidgeBot can help by simulating various attack vectors to identify vulnerabilities in your cybersecurity defenses. 

Make a committed effort to build better firewalls and sharpen your mental defenses. Combining technology and awareness can create a robust cybersecurity infrastructure that stands up to the evolving threats people face. 

About Author

Zachary Amos is the Features Editor at ReHack, where he covers cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and other trending tech topics. For more of his work, follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.