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What Is Cyberpsychology?

September 30, 2019

You might be wondering what cyberpsychology is. 

We're here to tell you. The discipline has emerged as a necessity to study how people respond in an age where technology and the Internet have become a major part of our environment. Today, over 4.33 billion people are active Internet users, the equivalent of 56 percent of the worldwide population.

As a high proportion of our everyday activities take place online (i.e. social interactions, shopping, banking, reading, video and music streaming, etc.), no wonder we are becoming increasingly preoccupied with how technology influences our thoughts and behavior, and ultimately how it shapes us as individuals and as a society.

The word “cyber” originates from “cybernetics," an area of investigation of the control and communication systems, and “psychology," the study of the human behavior and mind. According to John Suler, the term emerged in the mid-1990s and was used by online behavior researchers.

In a nutshell, cyberpsychology studies personality development in the online medium, the relationships we develop on the Internet, technology addictions, and cyberbullying, among others. 

Why is cyberpsychology important? 

Studying and understanding human behavior in relation to technology is vital, as the line between cyberspace and the real world is becoming blurry. And of course, it would be naïve to assume that technology isn't affecting everyone in some way.

Why do people behave differently when they go online than they do in real life? How do online relationships develop? Do people display different personalities in the cybersphere?

Cyberpsychology research often shifts to a broader spectrum, also focusing on human behavior in connection with emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and the Internet of Things.

And as the overlap between individuals and machines increases, the necessity of this discipline’s further development is becoming essential. Research has shown that the mental health of Internet users can be affected – their attention span becomes shorter, they get addicted to technology, they become misinformed due to the fake news phenomena, and so on.

Ultimately, cyberpsychology research aims to empower us to make the Internet a safer and better place.

At the crossroads between cybersecurity and psychology

You might be wondering what psychology has to do with cybersecurity.

At first glance, cybersecurity seems to be exclusively related to IT, when in reality, it is highly connected to psychology. Why? The answer is simple: the human psyche can prove to be a true cybercrime enabler. In fact, human error still seems to be the main cause of many data breaches, as studies have shown throughout the years.

Below are three major areas studied within the cyberpsychology field:

  • Social Engineering
  • Online privacy
  • Cyberbullying

People can easily be manipulated to perform certain actions that facilitate cyberattacks. For instance, think about spear phishing, the targeted attacks meant to trick specific individuals into revealing confidential information, downloading malicious email attachments, or clicking on suspicious links and infecting their endpoints with malware. 

TIP: Learn how to recover from a cyberattack if it ever happens to you. 

Learn more: 7 Tips on How to Recover From a Cyber Attack →

This attack, alongside many others (such as phishing, vishing, ransomware, or CEO fraud), relies on social engineering, a practice commonly employed by cybercriminals. In essence, in the IT security field, social engineering attacks are successful due to psychological manipulation.

No matter how strong your cybersecurity measures are, your personal information or a company’s confidential data can be easily compromised. If you are unaware you are being manipulated to perform certain actions, such as give away your login credentials, bank details, and even transfer money, you may easily fall prey to social engineering cybercriminals.

Online privacy also seems to be a hot topic within the cyberpsychology field. Through their research, experts are trying to find answers to certain questions, such as:

  • How does age influence privacy protective behavior on social media?
  • How concerned are people with protecting their own online privacy?
  • What privacy protective methods do they use online?

Cyberbullying research first started out as a response to the frequent use of technology among teenagers and aimed to identify and study the effect victimization can have on people.

It was proved that online harassment can have long-lasting psychological impact on individuals, causing serious psychological, social, and emotional issues. Sadly, it increasingly expands through entire communities across the world and even in the workplace.

Strengthening cybersecurity with psychology

Oftentimes, individuals aren’t prepared to deal with cybercrime at all. And even if they are somewhat educated cybersecurity-wise, when faced with real-life scenarios, they may often fail to identify the tell-tale signs of cyberattacks. Some individuals might be incorrectly evaluating the risks they are exposing themselves to and sometimes even their workplace. 

Related: Brush up on your cybersecurity knowledge with our comprehensive glossary of cybersecurity terms you need to know. 

Related content: A Complete Glossary of Cyber Security Terms →

How can psychology increase cybersecurity?

Researchers have proposed several measures that psychologists can take to strengthen cybersecurity and increase awareness around it:

  1. Identifying social situations in which people are more likely to share private information
  2. Finding malicious activity patterns
  3. Fostering collaboration with lawmakers
  4. Increasing public awareness
  5. Understanding the effect of cybercrime

For example, individuals are most likely to disclose personal and sensitive information in the context of casual conversations and on social networks.

Experts can identify anomalies and deviations from normal behavior. Furthermore, they can collaborate with IT providers to develop security systems that are able to detect malicious activities.

Legislators could be better trained on the social and psychological impact of cybercrime, so that legislation is raised to a level similar to physical crimes. Studies have shown that the issue of different laws across countries is one of the major factors that impedes fighting cybercrime.

Psychologists should communicate with mainstream audiences that go beyond scientific journals and research labs, so that people are more aware of the existing cybersecurity risks and shift their behavior toward privacy.

It has been confirmed that victims of cybercrime can suffer a significant psychological damage. Targets can experience feelings of shame and guilt that they’ve fallen prey to cyber attackers and might even resort to deleting their online presence altogether, afraid that a similar attack could strike again anytime. What’s more, these victims may even feel that nowhere will ever be safe again and will have an urge for redress.

Psychologists are very much aware of the role they play in preventing cyberattacks, as per the statement made by human factor psychologist Anita D’Amico:

‘‘As researchers and educators, we must address all the many different roles that we humans play in cybersecurity, beyond just the security practitioner who administers firewalls, tunes intrusion detection systems and monitors networks. We must also educate the software developer, lawyer, policymaker and all of us users who are unwitting accomplices of the attacker.’’

Fighting cybercrime in the workplace

Organizations must be capable of identifying employees and any third parties involved in their business operations, who are showing signs they may be capable of committing cybercrime. Also, they need to know what measures to take in order to avoid the dangers.

Thus, understanding and foreseeing these attacks is a great measure to avoid insider threats.

As a next step, businesses should start guarding themselves with prevention techniques, such as implementing powerful security solutions, restricting admin privileges, and using firewalls.

Also, organizations should not simply rely on protective measures. In case they fail, companies should have a cyber resilience program in place to be able to successfully and uninterruptedly continue their activity. This type of program involves knowing what to do in case cyber disaster strikes and training your employees to recognize the signs of cybercrime, alt the same time encouraging them to speak openly about any potential dangers.

The need for “psychological incident handling” 

Experts from SANS are proposing a plan to better understand those that would attempt to attack a business. This type of plan revolves around the human element and advises you to determine the motives of malicious hackers to infiltrate into your organization. It answers questions such as:

  • Did the attackers have internal knowledge or was any sensitive data revealed?
  • What kind of information were they looking for?
  • Was any data deleted?
  • What did they do to cover their tracks?

Incident handling is based on the identification, response, and mitigation of security incidents.

The questions above will contribute to creating a profile of the intruders and identifying their infiltration techniques, bringing a new understanding of the attackers’ minds. It uses the methods of behavioral analysis and formulates a new dimension of the malicious attacks and analysis of what happened in the organization’s environment.

Wrapping up

Cyberpsychology is no longer an emerging field, but rather a stand-alone established discipline within the behavioral sciences, appearing due to the fact that technology has dramatically changed the way we work, interact with each other, and spend our free time.

Since machines and the Internet have such a huge impact on us all, both at home and in the workplace, its constant development is vital for us both as individuals and for organizations. Through its further emergence, we can better understand pressing matters within our society, ranging from online addictions to profiling cybercriminals and grasping the root cause of cyberattacks. 

Want to learn more about the world of cybersecurity and how it affects the human psyche? Read up on over 50 incredible resources available in our cybersecurity hub! 

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