We are all aware of the importance of cybersecurity and protecting our organizations against hackers. Without protection, hackers can get into company networks and steal valuable data by exploiting vulnerabilities in the infrastructure or device operating systems. But it is equally as important to protect ourselves, the end users, from cybersecurity threats and to understand how bad actors are manipulating our innate thought processes. It’s no longer just our devices that are being hacked, but our psychology too.
Today, bad actors are using the latest technologies and advanced cognitive biases to mess with human thought processes, whether it is through fake news, fake ads, social defaming, scare tactics, or any other tool that can manipulate our thoughts, emotions, and actions. And nowadays, it’s not only criminals leveraging psychology to manipulate users, but corporations too. Corporations take part in this “mental hacking” by manipulating our minds with a number of tactics to make us subconsciously do what they want; most of which are centered on utilizing the natural vulnerabilities of the human brain that are yet to be fixed by evolution.
Our culture and technology has evolved rapidly over the last century, whereas natural evolution takes thousands of years to evolve. A Millennia ago in the savannah, if we heard a sound in the forest our brain would kick into flight or fight mode - preparing your body to run faster or fight any wild animal that might appear. Nowadays, that same process still takes place in your brain, even if there is no imminent threat! That's why when you go in front of a crowd, your brain kicks in and creates the same fight or flight response chemicals, your heart rate will go up, your throat will dry out, and your practiced speech will fade away.
In the hustle and bustle of modern life, our attention is the most important currency we have. Unfortunately, corporations have figured out a systematic approach to manipulate our natural human vulnerabilities to capitalize on our attention. Ask yourself, how many hours are you spending on social media every day? It’s most likely a lot more than what you would want to. On average, internet users spend over 16 hours a week on social media, which considering the average 40-hour working week, that is a lot of wasted time!
We need to have some understanding of the inner mechanics of our minds so that we can interpret our behavior. We also need to have an idea about the skills required to manage our actions according to our will. Otherwise, we risk regularly falling for external manipulations. We have to be realistic and understand that this is an unfair game, and just like in other cybersecurity challenges, the villains we face will most likely have more resources than we have. However, I hope the skill and knowledge you acquire with these methods will help you to learn a valuable and necessary life skill going forward.
When you see fake news, a social media feed, an app notification, or any other stimuli, it immediately triggers a flurry of thoughts. Every thought we have, whether triggered by an external event or an
internal feeling, goes through a unique cycle.
When your brain interprets these thoughts, it questions whether this is useful information and if our needs are met with this thought. See the type of human needs pre-wired to us. If the brain feels that the thought is “needed”, then it will run the pre-learned habits associated with that thought.
The first step in this response process is to create an emotional, biological state through specific chemicals. A study found that when we're curious, our brain releases a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is the brain's natural wonder drug! It's a neurotransmitter that's released whenever we feel something pleasurable. Once the action is detected as pleasurable, we tend to repeat that action, and, over time, it gets wired into our brain circuitry and becomes an automatic habit.
For example, If you have posted a picture of your cat on social media, you might become curious to know how many of your friends liked it. Before you know it, you are on Facebook watching your friend's post and comment on your image, and, suddenly, two hours have passed!
Strategies to break the cycle...
Understanding this basic psychology itself is half of the solution. By learning how our thoughts and actions influence our feelings, we can learn to manage our responses.
Separating yourself from your thoughts is a big idea. Labeling your emotions – for example, I am feeling curious, angry, happy, etc., is a smart strategy to get a short pause. It helps to give you an insight into what is going on inside your mind so that you can make smarter decisions.
The whole process of having a thought, creating an emotion, and making an action takes only a fraction of a second. So how do you pause it so you have enough time to read your thoughts, emotions, and potential default actions? Mindfulness is a psychological solution whereby you purposely bring attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. There are various practices available to boost your mindfulness and the key is to train your mental muscle to slow down your thoughts and label your emotions. This will then give you control of your responses, rather than you falling for habits created by corporations designed to grab your attention.
Evolution might take longer to fix these vulnerabilities in our brain in order to meet modern life, so in the meantime, I hope these ideas will help you stay productive and protect your interests.
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