First, security professionals should understand that people’s resources are limited. Moreover, people tend to struggle with making effective decisions when they are tired.
To test the validity of this argument, psychologists designed an experiment in which they divided participants into two groups.
The first group was asked to memorise a two-digit number (e.g. 54), and the second was asked to remember a seven-digit number (e.g. 4509672). They then asked the participants to go down the hall to another room to collect their reward for participating. This payment, however, could be only received if the number was recalled correctly.
While they were making their way down the corridor, the participants encountered another experimenter, who offered them either fruit or chocolate. They were told that they could collect their chosen snack after they finished the experiment, but they had to make a decision there and then.
The results demonstrated that people who were given the easier task of remembering a two-digit number mostly chose the healthy option, while people overburdened by the more challenging task of recalling a longer string of digits succumbed to the more gratifying chocolate.
The implications of these findings, however, are not limited to dieting. A study looked at the decision-making patterns that can be observed in the behaviour of judges when considering inmates for parole during different stages of the day.
Despite the default position being to reject parole, judges had more cognitive capacity and energy to fully consider the details of the case and make an informed decision in the mornings and after lunch, resulting in more frequently granted paroles.
In the evenings, judges tended to reject parole far more frequently, which is believed to be due to the mental strain they endure throughout the day. They simply ran out of energy and defaulted to the safest option.
How can this be applied to the information security context?
Security professionals should bear in mind that if people are stressed at work, making difficult decisions, performing productive tasks, they get tired. This might affect their ability or willingness to maintain compliance. In a corporate context, this cognitive depletion may result in staff defaulting to core business activities at the expense of secondary security tasks.
Security mechanisms must be aligned with individual primary tasks in order to ensure effective implementation by factoring in an individual’s perspective, knowledge, and awareness as well as a modern, flexible, and adaptable information security approach.
The aim should, therefore, be to correct employee misunderstandings and misconceptions that result in non-compliant behaviour, for in the end, people are a company’s best asset.
About the Author: Leron Zinatullin (@le_rond) is an experienced risk consultant, specialising in cyber security strategy, management and delivery. He has led large scale, global, high value security transformation projects with a view to improving cost performance and supporting business strategy. He has extensive knowledge and practical experience in solving information security, privacy and architectural issues across multiple industry sectors. Visit Leron’s blog here: https://zinatullin.com/
To find out more about the psychology behind information security, read Leron’s book, The Psychology of Information Security.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this guest author article are solely those of the contributor, and do not necessarily reflect those of Tripwire, Inc.
 B. Shiv and A. Fedorikhin, “Heart and Mind in Conflict: The Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Consumer Decision Making”, Journal of Consumer Research, 1999, 278–292.
 Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav and Liora Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(17), 2011, 6889–6892.