Last Updated: 20 August 2022

The link between emotional intelligence and cybersecurity is often misunderstood or not understood at all. Cybersecurity is seen as a complex, a niche for technical expertise alone. This paradigm is starting to shift as the pandemic has exacerbated why cybersecurity is as much a people problem as it is a technical problem. Here is why.


Our brain is not designed to think

Our brain is a flesh and organ, its main job is to help us survive – not necessarily to think from a rational place when we are in survival mode. Multitasking is an illusion which can drain us from our mental energy.

The illustration below displays the cognitive behavioural sequence, which shows how external events can create our emotions, and how emotions influence and shape our behaviours.


When we are in normal reaction mode, we don’t feel a sense of danger or threat. Our brain acts as body budget energy regulator. Which means our energy is optimal, and we function from our pre-frontal cortex of the brain.

Being in a normal reaction mode basically implies you feel safe in your environment, the absence of danger. For example, when you are working from home with your favourite music, no one to disturb you, and you feel focused while working. Of when you are with your friends, having dinner and laughing – you are experiencing positive emotions so the absence of danger signals to your brain that all is well.

When we are in stress response, we do feel a sense of danger and our brain sends our body into fight – flight or freeze mode. Then we function from our hippocampus part of the brain.

Imagine receiving an ambiguous email from your manager who leaves out the context of a situation sending you into an imaginary mode of what you could have done wrong, are you or the organisation in trouble? Perhaps you are working towards a deadline and the fear of failing or not delivering a quality product or service sends shivers up your spine. Your brain believes you are in danger and your body will act accordingly.

Thus, survival mode kicks in and our brain will only use critical functions to manage our energy. Hence, why we feel uncomfortable emotions. It is only human nature that we deflect, project or numb these sensations of feeling uncomfortable to try and feel safe.

Our bias kicks in as these are short-cut mental models that are familiar to us, concepts taught in our formative years, our experiences, our memories and what we can perceive and sense, at that moment.


Why does this matter?

When we come from a normal reaction mode, we have more energy and are less likely to feel triggered or defensive. We feel comfortable in our environment as the brain is not perceiving any threat or danger significant enough to trigger emotions of discomfort, or even pain. However, when we feel triggered by an external event or person, and if those events trigger a sense of insecurity, emotions of discomfort are likely to arise. This is when we enter the stress response, which can be helpful if we are gearing into action to meet our need for survival instinct At that moment. This can be running away from a car that is about to hit you, or finishing that project before your boss gets on your back. Your mind does not distinguish between these two events in terms of stress response.

In the VUCA world, a world marked with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, we live and work in – scammers and criminals prey on emotional manipulation to steal and use data for malicious intents. It is no secret that around 90% of cyberattacks are linked with social engineering techniques. Business Email Compromise, for example, is a prevailing social engineering techniques costing organizations around the globe billions. Criminals and scammers use phishing emails, impersonation techniques and other manipulation means to get people to act in a way that feeds into their criminal agenda through emotional manipulation.


Tune in and listen

On this week’s U.S. National Privacy and Cybersecurity Podcast, I sat down with Jeremiah Buckley and Jody Westby to discuss how to use emotional intelligence to counter cyberattacks rooted in social engineering techniques.

⏭ We spoke about the vulnerability of the algorithms of our mind.

⏮ Why emotional firewalls can help build cyber resilience as an organizational culture.

⏭ What are some building blocks of a healthy security culture and how to implement these.

Check out the full episode on Spotify!


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