Study links phishing vulnerabilities to personality traits

A new report from the Polytechnic Institute of New York University has linked susceptibility to phishing scams to personality traits, noting that women may be more vulnerable to men.

In a paper published by the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly), three researchers sampled 100 students from an undergrad psychology class, most of them science or engineering majors. The undergrads were given a questionnaire asking about their online habits and beliefs, including details on the type of information, as well as the volume of said information, shared on Facebook.

[3 steps to identify a potential phishing email]

In addition, they were asked to rate the likelihood of negative things happening to them personally online, such as stolen passwords, before answering a short version of a commonly used multidimensional personality assessment survey. The answers given established a base, and from there the researchers used the email addresses given by the undergrads to conduct phishing assessments.

The phishing email attempted to trick the students into clicking a link in order to enter a prize raffle and to fill out a form requesting personal information. In order to keep things as close to the real deal as possible, the phishing email used a fake FROM: address, and the body of the message contained spelling and grammatical errors. These intentional mistakes were used in order to see if those with a technical grounding would spot the scam before it became an issue.

"We were surprised to see that 17 percent of our targets were successfully phished--and this was a group with considerable computer knowledge," James Lewis, instructor in the NYU-Poly Department of Science, Technology and Society, said in a statement.

Most of those who feel for the scam were women. Those women who were (based on the questionnaire and personality assessment) categorized as neurotic were also found to be the likeliest to fall for a Phishing scam. Interestingly, there was no correlation between men's personality types and their vulnerability to phishing. Moreover, the student's knowledge of computer security also didn't factor into their level of vulnerability.

"These results tell us that personality characteristics may exert considerable influence when it comes to choices about online behavior, and that they may even override awareness of online threats," Lewis explained.

Speaking to CSO, Michele Fincher, the Chief Influencing Agent at, said correctly noticed that the researchers were obviously talking about the Big Five personality traits; openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

However, she said that while the research is interesting, one needs to go beyond the headline-making stats to understand the psychology of phishing. This is because decision-making is a complex interaction of situational variables.

Backing her assessment, the NYU-Poly study noted that those with open personalities tended to share more on Facebook and have an increased vulnerability to privacy leaks. Thus, in the moment they may be more focused on the possibility of winning a prize or the perceived benefits of sharing information online, rather than focus on the potential for damaging outcomes such as being a phishing victim.

It's important to note that the researchers the point that their study sample was small and further investigation is needed. Such investigation may offer important insights into how personality traits impact decision-making online, and it may aid in the design of more effective computer interfaces, as well as security training and education.

A copy of the research paper can be downloaded here.

"Research on gender and decision-making/helping behaviors are very mixed, and once you throw in personality traits, it becomes even more complex. In general, research has found that there tend to be more women than men who rate higher in the trait of Neuroticism -- so is it really gender, or is it really the personality trait that is affecting the outcome," Fincher said.

"On the flip side, there also may be variables (i.e., personality, culture, situation) that make women better at creating lures or more effective at social engineering. For example, the winner of this year's Social-Engineering Capture the Flag event held at DEF CON was a woman who blew away the rest of the field - something to think about when we review studies of this type."

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