Anyone for Fishing?


When attempting to make breakthroughs in behavioural sciences, academics have a habit of using students as research rats. They are not ideal candidates, but they are cheap! They’ll do anything for a beer and a bung. Critics have often argued that college students are immature and inexperienced, come from a particular socio-economic background and often respond irrationally in test conditions – thus making the research results unreliable.

It is far better to use a large swathe of the public in research trials. This gives more robust findings, but it costs extra and takes longer to conduct. However, daily activity across the internet has just provided researches with a handy solution to this dilemma.

E-mails and general internet communications are plagued with phishing stings – not to be confused with fishing strings. Phishing is a scam where the user is tricked into providing confidential data to an illicit third-party. In most instances, hindsight analysis shows up the inadequacies of the phishing techniques; and yet people are nonetheless fooled. Why consumers are regularly duped by phishing has long been a cause of concern for business managers. Recent research by cybersecurity experts may have found the answer.

It seems it’s all down to a variety of cognitive biases. Psychologists have shown that human thinking is broken down into two phases; intuitive/emotional, where we make automatic decisions; and contemplative/purposeful, where we are more deliberate in our choices. Scammers concentrate on keeping us constantly in the first phase.

We have an uncanny knack of automatically assuming the best – we just don’t believe that somebody is out to con us in the first instance. Scammers successfully prey on this vulnerability. They also rely on our curiosity and our absent-mindedness. Researchers have found that once scammers overcome our initial mental barrier, they have little difficulty in getting us to click on the link or open the file that releases the mayhem. So that initial impact is crucial. Once we get sucked in, we become more susceptible.

In hindsight, experts can point out our mistakes and train us in how to avoid repeating our errors – until the scammers become ever more sophisticated at tweaking our defences!

This all got us wondering about not just e-mail phishing scams but also the distribution of untruthful data – so-called fake news. The same dimensions apply. We are confronted with a message. We either see through it or we fall for it. Once we are hooked, we become an advocate (sometimes unwittingly) for that point of view. Before we know it, we are dispersing our views to wider and wider communities of people, who themselves are predisposed to first- and second-phase thinking.

Fake news is not a new phenomenon but the speed and breadth of transmission most certainly is. By carefully selecting the inputs, scammers can by-pass our first line of defence and convince us of the authenticity of the information. The pace and extent of the deception is mind-boggling. It would make a mere mortal long for a quieter life – fishing!



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