Combat Risky Behaviors with The Nudge Theory Blog


Today, cyber and ransomware attacks have reached a level of national crisis, garnering attention from global leaders who are now strategizing on how to better protect organizations and their employees from the devastating effects of these threats. While humans tend to be the weakest link of the cyber threat chain, when properly armed and educated, they become the strongest asset in effectively securing networks and keeping cybercriminals on the outside.


To understand why this is, we must first understand the basics of cognitive psychology. The human brain is wired to help humans multitask by taking mental shortcuts that allow us to increase efficiency in our everyday lives. Cybercriminals use this human ‘flaw’ advantageously, leveraging cognitive biases to trick victims daily with ever-evolving social engineering techniques that are highly personalized and targeted at a single individual. To combat these methods, IT leaders must mimic the strategy cybercriminals have adopted through the nudge theory. Based on indirect encouragement and enablement, this theory proposes that positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions can influence an individual’s behavior and decision-making by providing subtle, personalized nudges that encourage people to make positive and helpful decisions. In the context of cybersecurity, IT leaders can leverage the nudge theory to send in-the-moment reminders that notify employees about secure behaviors and how a specific behaviors could lead to poor security outcomes.

Regardless of the amount of previous annual cyber training or technical expertise an employee has, they are often still duped by sophisticated scams featuring various tricks and techniques that tap into their fears, hopes, and brain functions. To stay ahead of this, leaders need to proactively anticipate threats and educate employees consistently over time in order to ensure cybersecurity is always top of mind and to establish positive change in behaviors. With in-the-moment reminders about behaving securely, leaders can encourage their workforce to make positive and helpful decisions. Ultimately, this reshapes existing behaviors and counteracts innate human cognitive bias.


The best examples of this lesson in action are password strength meters used by most retail sign-up forms. The meter slowly builds from red to green as users build out passwords that fulfill security requirements such as lower-case, upper-case, and specialty characters. Tapping into humans’ innate need to complete tasks positively influences users’ online behaviors.


Psychological studies have suggested that people are more motivated and more likely to adopt a new behavior when given small tasks and immediate small rewards, which includes positive feedback. This is particularly effective for cybersecurity training. When employees know that the feedback is a direct result of an action they specifically took, they are more likely to pay attention and absorb the information. Additionally, when presented in a positive and empowering tone, employees are more likely to feel encouraged to come forward when they fall victim to a real phishing or cyber-attack. Across the organization, people must recognize the importance of their company’s corporate security policies, understand why they are essential, identify attacks in real-time, and know the appropriate actions to remediate an attack.

The nudge theory is a helpful and effective tool in combating sophisticated phishing and social engineering techniques that manipulates workers’ normal brain functions. Security, IT, and even HR leaders can benefit from using the nudge theory to make employees more conscious of their specific online behaviors with subtle tips and reminders that keep cybersecurity top of mind. By approaching cybersecurity awareness with personalized coaching based on real-life scenarios, leaders can better enhance retention and engagement and positively influence user behavior, resulting in overall increased security posture for their organizations.

For those interested in learning more about how nudge theory can help positively shape their workforce’s online behaviors, download our newest ebook, “A CISO’s Guide: Mitigating the Human Risk Factor.”

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