Emotional Firewalls Against Social Engineering Scams: The Art of Preparedness

cyber security challenges emotional firewalls emotional intelligence Oct 15, 2023
Cyber Security Awareness Month Event Recording

Today's event is a part of a three-event series, designed to provide you a glimpse into my work beyond mere words. We’re diving into the intersection of social engineering, scams, and emotional intelligence in a safe and engaging environment.

My journey began with nearly two decades at NATO, focusing on crisis management, security, cyber, and stakeholder engagement. My expertise lies in international relations and security studies, but my true passion has always been understanding human behavior and psychology. Post a life-changing burnout in 2019, I started Thrive with EQ just before the pandemic.

In today’s digital age, the headlines often focus on the technical aspects of scams—the financial loss, the infiltration methods, and the digital firewalls. While these are undoubtedly important, they often overlook a crucial element: human emotion. Social engineering exploits not just systems but our feelings, our cognitive biases, and our triggers. Herein lies the vulnerability that no technical firewall can mitigate.

Anyone proclaiming the eradication of human error in cyber security is engaging in wishful thinking. Human nature is fluid, and people are dealing with challenging times of change and uncertainty which adds to their daily stressors in life.

As we innovate in securing our digital lives, so do those with malicious intent. I often cite the MGM case in Las Vegas, where a dynasty worth 33 billion was threatened by a mere 10-minute phone conversation. One impersonated employee managed to call the help desk and wreak havoc.

This is why I emphasize the necessity for "Emotional Firewalls." Far from being a term I coined, emotional intelligence is a well-established discipline. The aim is not to reinvent the wheel but to connect the dots between emotional intelligence and cyber resilience. I want to furnish people with the tools to transform from being the weakest link to becoming a stronghold in the chain of cyber security.

It’s not about one or the other. Yes, we need technical protection, but we also need that human layer strengthened. Employees at the help desk need more than technical training; they need to spot emotional red flags, develop self-awareness, and cultivate better ways of operating amidst these threats. This involves both emotional and cognitive elements.

In summary, my mission is to make the domain of cyber resilience more human. To provide a toolkit that empowers people to better defend themselves not just technically but emotionally. It's about practicality, about applying emotional intelligence to real-world challenges we face every day. Whether it's in the sphere of performance, productivity, or well-being, the practical application of emotional intelligence is pivotal. And this is what we aim to explore in this series of events.



Scenario 1: The Eager Millennial's Misstep


  • Name: Emily
  • Age: 28
  • Occupation: Rising star as a project manager at a fintech start-up.
  • EQ Level: Self-confident but often ensnared by her own haste.

The ticking of the digital clock on Emily's computer screen amplifies the urgency of her impending project deadline. Amid her cluttered inbox, an email with the familiar logo of her team's project management tool catches her eye. The subject, "Urgent Comment from Team Lead," quickens her heartbeat. In her fast-paced world, she feels the heavy burden of her responsibilities. Overwhelmed by the moment, she clicks the link.

Emotional Landscape

  1. Pressing Time: In Emily's world, the clock is a relentless companion. It fuels her sense of urgency, making her prone to hasty decisions.
  2. Professional Stakes: Her role at a fast-paced fintech start-up adds another layer of pressure, intensifying her emotional whirlpool.
  3. Trust in Familiarity: Emily's trust in the source, stemming from the familiar logo and context, clouded her judgment and lowered her emotional firewall, making her susceptible to phishing scams.


EQ Markers and Cybersecurity

Marker 1: Problem-Solving

Low Score: Tends to react impulsively, especially when a quick decision appears to resolve an immediate issue. Emily missed cross-checking the email's authenticity, thinking she's solving a problem but potentially exacerbating it.

High Score: Would assess the situation meticulously and cross-check unexpected communications, effectively reducing the risk of scams.

Marker 2: Reality Testing

Low Score: Might overlook inconsistencies and red flags, leaving them vulnerable to manipulations like phishing emails.

High Score: Possesses a discerning eye for authenticity, questioning and verifying anything that seems amiss.


What Emily Overlooked

  1. Self-Awareness: Emily neglected to pause and assess her emotional triggers, like her sense of urgency and trust in familiar sources, which impacted her decision to click the link.
  2. Reality Testing: Her failure to question the authenticity of the email led her into the trap, underlining the need for strong reality testing skills.

By exploring Emily's emotional landscape and its impact on her cybersecurity choices, we shift the conversation from blaming to understanding, from fear to empowerment. We're not just talking about avoiding scams; we're talking about arming Emily—and those like her—with the emotional resilience to navigate the high-stakes, high-pressure world of the digital age effectively.



The Scenario of Mark

  • Name: Mark
  • Age: 47
  • Occupation: Senior finance professional at a high-profile traditional bank.
  • EQ Level: Generally balanced EQ, but stress, especially from tight deadlines, tends to unravel him.

Mark's Professional Landscape

  1. High-Stakes Occupation: Mark has a senior role in a prominent financial institution, where the margin for error is narrow. A single mistake could impact not only his career but the entire bank's reputation.
  2. Balancing Act: He navigates through a maze of professional obligations and personal emotional pressures. For Mark, the challenges extend beyond spreadsheets to emotional well-being.
  3. The Cybersecurity Conundrum: Words like "data breach" and "IT audit" generate emotional reactions that go beyond mere professional concern.

Navigating Emotional Complexity

  1. Time Crunch: As Mark's day nears its end, he is deluged by last-minute requests. It’s not merely a logistical issue; it’s an emotional labyrinth.
  2. Impulse Under Stress: When the pressure mounts, Mark is more prone to act impulsively, creating a broader risk for his organization.
  3. Emotional vs. Professional: The inner need to unwind at day’s end clashes with sudden professional responsibilities, leading to emotional discord.

Emotional Intelligence in Cybersecurity

  1. Navigating Emotional Currents: Mark could benefit from being more aware of what triggers his stress and developing coping mechanisms through emotional intelligence training.
  2. Situational Understanding: A shift in perspective, where an IT audit is seen not as a personal indictment but a regular organizational practice, can help manage emotional responses.
  3. Strengthening Emotional Resilience: Focused training and self-awareness can strengthen Mark's emotional resilience, making him better equipped to handle the psychological aspects of his job.

In Mark's case, the fusion of emotional intelligence and cybersecurity provides a compelling lesson: it's not just about implementing digital firewalls but also about strengthening the human aspect of decision-making in stressful conditions.

Emotional intelligence becomes a tool, not just for personal growth but as a line of defense against poor decision-making that could expose vulnerabilities in cybersecurity protocols.

By empathizing with Mark’s challenges, the conversation around cybersecurity evolves. It moves from a technically confined discourse to a more holistic understanding that includes the emotional and psychological variables influencing human behavior.

In essence, building resilience in our digital era isn’t just about the technology we employ, but also about the emotional well-being of those who use it.


The Scenario of Claire


  • Name: Claire
  • Age: 25
  • Occupation: Executive Assistant to the founder of a SaaS start-up.
  • EQ Level: Ambitious and eager to please but lacks emotional resilience, often doubting her capabilities.

Claire's Professional World

  1. Startup Pressure: Claire navigates a high-stakes landscape where every decision carries weight. In such an environment, urgency is the norm, not the exception.
  2. Self-Validation and Ambition: Claire's identity is closely tied to her job performance, and the validation from her boss, Jake, is crucial for her sense of worth.
  3. Digital Skills, Emotional Learning Curve: Though Claire is technologically adept, her emotional resilience is still being shaped by her relatively limited life experience.

Navigating Emotional Terrain

  1. The Need to Prove Herself: Claire's eagerness to meet expectations makes her quick to act, especially when she believes it's an urgent request from Jake.
  2. Fear Versus Ambition: The balance between her desire to excel and the dread of failure creates an emotional tightrope.
  3. When Speed Overrides Caution: Her drive for self-validation sometimes makes her emotionally vulnerable, particularly to manipulations that capitalize on her sense of duty.

Emotional Intelligence as a Shield in Cybersecurity

  1. Pause and Reflect: Claire would benefit from understanding the emotional drivers behind her quick reactions. Is it the desire to please Jake or the fear of letting him down?
  2. Situational Awareness: Recognizing the gravity of her role could add a cautionary layer to her decision-making process.
  3. Strengthening Emotional Resilience: Claire can become more emotionally resilient by understanding her triggers and acting in line with this self-awareness. This would make her less likely to make impulsive decisions and more likely to validate the authenticity of urgent requests.

In Claire's scenario, her emotional landscape makes her a prime candidate for complex scams like CEO fraud, where deepfake technology or AI-driven social engineering techniques are used. Claire's quest to prove her worth in a startup culture and her still-developing emotional resilience make her particularly vulnerable.

Emotionally equipping Claire isn’t merely a matter of a one-off security seminar. It demands an understanding of her emotional triggers and a personalized strategy to strengthen her emotional resilience. This allows Claire not only to protect the startup's digital assets but also to traverse her professional landscape more securely and effectively.

By examining Claire's story, we're doing more than highlighting an individual case. We're showcasing why cybersecurity should be seen as a collective, deeply human responsibility. It’s about building an emotionally resilient workforce prepared to mitigate not just known but evolving digital threats.



Emotional Blindspots in the Age of Social Engineering

When we hear about social engineering attacks in the cybersecurity landscape, we often think of high-tech exploits. Yet, the crux of these attacks often rests on manipulating human vulnerabilities—our emotional blind spots. This blog post offers a candid discussion, dissecting the nuance behind why people, especially those in the early stages of their career, become susceptible to social engineering traps.

The discourse revealed how younger professionals eager to impress often fall prey to urgency and pressure, fertile grounds for scammers. The need for external validation and a lack of self-regard make them easy targets for social engineering tactics. Companies and leadership must address this gap by nurturing emotional resilience and assertiveness in their teams. Doing so will significantly reduce the risk and create a safer work environment.

Experts agree that taking a moment to "breathe and step away" can make a huge difference. When faced with a sense of urgency, detaching allows individuals to tap into the rational part of their brain, rather than reacting from a place of fear. Kindness, grounded in self-regard, is advised over "niceness," which aims to please and is easily exploited.

Moreover, the conversation laid bare how this issue is more than a personal responsibility; it is a systemic problem requiring a collective solution. Organizations must invest in equipping their staff with emotional intelligence skills, focusing on self-regard and assertiveness. This is particularly crucial for averting CEO frauds, where employees fear losing their jobs if they don't comply with urgent requests from authority figures.

The dialogue also touched on the increasing trend of decentralized criminal networks using social engineering as a 'business model'. From ransomware to phishing, attackers prey on low self-regard and emotional vulnerabilities, made easier with the information freely shared on social media.

The take-away is clear: In an era where the question is not if but when you will be attacked, emotional resilience is not a luxury—it's a necessity. Organizations need to move beyond protocols to ensure their teams are mentally and emotionally prepared to implement them, even under pressure. After all, as the saying goes, the chain is only as strong as its weakest link.


The Evolution of the Trap: From Shotgun to Sniper

The world of phishing has moved from "ransomware as a service" models that target massive lists of potential victims to more researched, individualized approaches like whaling and spear phishing. While the former relies on casting a wide net to snare as many victims as possible, the latter uses personalized information to build a rapport and ultimately, gain trust. These tailored schemes can be driven by political motivations or monetary gains, and they often exploit human emotions and values to get you to click.


Generative AI: A Double-Edged Sword

Perhaps the most eye-opening evolution is the use of generative AI to craft emails. These aren't your typical misspelled, grammatically incorrect messages; they are meticulously crafted, exploiting your fears and insecurities. Generative AI understands language in a way that can trigger deep emotions, making these emails highly persuasive and even more dangerous.


LinkedIn: A Dual Playground

As we increasingly turn to professional platforms like LinkedIn to connect and network, we should be equally mindful of its dual nature. Yes, it's a treasure trove for professional growth, but it's also a ripe ground for potential scams. While the platform can give you valuable insights into a sender's credibility, your own activity can equally be mined for information to be used against you in scams. It's not about abandoning the platform, but about wielding it with care and awareness.

Emotional Firewalls: Your First Line of Defense

While technology plays a major role in security, we often forget the one element that has been with us all along—our intuition, or what some might call "spidey senses." An email may pass all digital security checks, but if it feels off, that's your emotional firewall signaling a cautionary tale. Cultivate it. Pay attention to it. When you're barraged with urgent emails, pause and differentiate between perceived urgency and actual urgency.


Final Thoughts: Take Your Time, The World Won't Stop

At the intersection of technology and human behavior, it's crucial to slow down and assess before reacting. There’s no rush to respond to an email or click a link. The world won’t stop if you take a moment to think, analyze, and verify. When urgency is artificially inflated, it's a ploy to make you act without thinking. In those moments, remember your emotional firewalls are there to protect you.

So as we step into an era where human-operated ransomware schemes are rising, let's not forget to invest in strengthening our emotional resilience. Next week, we'll delve deeper into individual and team resilience, equipping you further in your digital journey.

Thank you for your time, your insights, and your willingness to build a safer digital world. Have a wonderful week ahead, and see you at our next session.

Goodbye for now, and remember: resilience is not just an ability; it's a continuous practice.

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