Is Personality the Missing Piece of Security Awareness Training?

September 4, 2019
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3 min read

I saw a picture on Twitter the other day that accurately described security awareness training: a door with a “PULLSH” sign. So often, employee cybersecurity training feels like you are teaching everyone to pull on the door handle, but there is always that group who thinks you mean push. No matter how many times you stress pull, they continue to push.

Employees who don’t seem to follow directions well, especially security-related directions, are the ones who add another threat level to your network and data. I’ve spoken to enough chief information security officers (CISOs) and security leaders over the years who were nearly pulling their hair out in frustration over their inability to impart the importance of good cybersecurity practices to coworkers.

But what if we have been approaching security awareness training all wrong? Educators stress that every person has their own learning style. This attitude should seep into employee cybersecurity training as well. One way to start individualizing security education is by recognizing and working with personality types.

The Myers-Briggs Approach to Security Awareness Training

Human error plays a prominent role in data breaches and other incidents. Cybercriminals often depend on human mistakes to access corporate assets.

“Given both the serious repercussions of cybercrime and the key role that human error plays in cyber security breaches, it is vital that a more holistic approach is taken to cyber security,” stated a white paper from ESET and The Myers-Briggs Company, which is well-known for its personality tests.

While the full report won’t be released until early 2020, the white paper did reveal how certain types of security-related errors correlate with certain personality types. For example, people with a preference for judging or feeling are more vulnerable to social engineering attacks than those with thinking preferences, possibly because thinkers tend to turn to logic to solve problems. However, thinkers can also get overconfident in their abilities, and are therefore more likely to make mistakes that lead to increased risk.

If security awareness training took personality traits into consideration, CISOs could model the tests so those personality types most susceptible to manipulation would have a greater emphasis on social engineering attack methods, while the personalities most likely to take risks could have a security education focused on the dangers of risky behaviors.

It’s possible that personality types could go beyond security training and be used to build stronger security teams, too. While, realistically, security teams are going to be put together on the basis of the skills, knowledge and track record of the people chosen, John Hackston at The Myers-Briggs Company told me in an email conversation that personality traits could be useful in helping that team work together more effectively by building each person’s self-awareness and understanding of what makes others in the team tick.

“We’ve found, for example, that teams who have been through this process have less disruptive conflicts, seeing their different points of view in a more positive way and thereby making better decisions,” Hackston said.

Make Your Security Education a Little More Personal

On the other side of the coin, not everyone is completely on board with the idea of using personalities to improve security awareness training. Chris Morales, head of security analytics at Vectra, told SecurityWeek that he doesn’t think you can connect clicking on a phishing link with a certain personality type, because “when something like phishing is incredibly successful, it means every type of personality is most likely at risk.”

He might be right on that point; everybody is going to make mistakes, and human error goes beyond what a personality type indicates. Other factors play in to why someone who might excel at security best practices one day might be the one to fall for a ransomware attack the next. You can’t add challenges like fighting a severe head cold or mourning the loss of a loved one into security education; nor can you ask employees to avoid a computer when they aren’t at peak performance.

If you ask me, human behavior has to be taken into consideration for security awareness training. People are a vulnerability to good cybersecurity practices. We know this. We also know that security training is failing at most companies. Why not explore how one’s personality affects their ability to judge certain types of risks, and tailor educational programs around different personality traits? It will no doubt be an improvement on the approaches used today.

Sue Poremba

I began writing within the branded content/content marketing space in 2011, including articles, blog posts, SEO, Q&A, and profiles. My specialties are cy...
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