March 14, 2013

The psychology of spamming, part 1 - How our brains work

Spam. Malware. Hacking. We all know that these things are bad for our cyber health. We also know, when we are emotionally detached and disengaged, that phishing scams and 419 scams are malicious. There is no rich uncle in Nigeria who is willing to give us several hundred thousand dollars if we will only loan him $500. We all know this.
Until it happens to us.
Phishing costs individuals and banks millions of dollars annually. Advanced fee fraud scams individuals hundreds of thousands per year. People are falling for them. And they fall for them every year. Yet despite the security industry’s best efforts, people will continue to fall for them next year, and for years after that. Why do we fall for financial scams? What is it about us that makes us say “Oh, I would never fall for an actual scam… except when it happens to me because this time it’s different”?
Microsoft Forefront Online has seen an increase in financial related spam over the past year, specifically regarding 419 scams, phishing and gambling:

Why are these scams up? Why is it that as a society we don’t seem to be getting any better at defending against these even though there is already lots of education out there? Why do they even work at all?

Our Stone Age Brains

In order to understand why we fall for scams, we need to understand how our brains work. As a species, we have been evolving for millions of years and our brains have evolved in order to keep us alive and keep the species going. We still have our Stone Age brains to this day and it is this legacy that explains why we fall for scams.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, our ancestors in Africa went out on the hunt in order to bring back food. While they were hunting on the savannah and they suddenly encountered a threat such as two dozen hippos, their first inclination was to freeze to avoid being seen by the threat. This response is still with us today. If you’re sitting around talking to friends and you suddenly hear a loud sound such as thunder or a crashing sound, your first action is to turn towards the sound of the noise and freeze. This is a legacy we inherited from our Stone Age brains, which are working hard to protect us. If we are walking down a country road and we see a snake, we freeze. We experience an involuntary fear response and decide to either run away or go around the snake.
We are all familiar with the flight-or-fight response, that is, the options that we as people have when we encounter a threat. In reality, there is a third option; it should be called the freeze, flight or fight response. Back in Africa, our ancestors evaluated the threat quickly; after freezing, they either turned and ran (flight), or they brought spears with them and decided they could take out the hippos (fight). In each one, however, the emotion/decision coming out of the fear response is what drove their decisions. The reason why we experience emotion today is because emotions were necessary for survival for our Stone Age ancestors.
In essence, we don’t have one brain, but three as shown in Figure 2:
  1. The brain stem (or reptilian brain) – this regulates essential survival like hunger and breathing.
  2. The limbic brain (or mammalian brain) – this part of our brain is responsible for much of our basic survival. It is the part of our brain that is designed to react, not reason. It governs our emotions like desire, fear, happiness, anger, and so forth. This part of our brain response is hardwired into our physiology. It has been developing for millions of years.
  3. The neocortex brain (or human brain) – this is the part of our brain that is responsible for all of our creative processes and is responsible for logic and advanced thinking. The reason that we as humans are at the top of the evolutionary ladder is because we have the largest and most developed neocortexes of any species.
                              Figure 2 – The Human Brain [1]
It is the limbic system that is responsible for our emotions, and it is our emotions that are responsible for driving a good portion of how we react. The limbic system is the part of the brain that is designed to react, not reason. That functionality is reserved for the neocortex.
Our Stone Age brains now have a large neocortex wrapped around our limbic brains, but we still experience emotions as strongly as ever. And furthermore, even if we could we wouldn’t want to dampen the impact of our emotions.
Studies have been done on individuals who have experienced brain injuries that have left their intellect intact but damaged the parts of the brain that is responsible for the seat of emotion. The results have shown that people with emotional deficiencies have problems making even the most basic decisions. For example, when deciding to complete a task at work, they spend a long time organizing papers into a certain order or ordering tasks in a specific sequence but they never actually get around to doing anything. Thus, the limbic system in our brains was critical for our ancestors’ survival and we still require its use today.

[1] Image taken from “What Every Body is Saying”, by Joe Navarro
This blog post was contributed by Terry Zink. Find out more about Terry by visiting his blog at

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