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The Psychology of Phishing Defenses: A No-Bull Look at Three CISOs

Published On:
September 2, 2023
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Last week, I had the eye-opening experience of sitting down with three CISOs from Fortune 500 companies. The differences in their approaches to phishing defense were not just surprising—they were downright alarming. This isn't an academic debate; this is a first-hand account that exposes the glaring gaps in how we think about cybersecurity.

CISO #1: The Punitive Drill Sergeant in Financial Services

First on the list was a CISO from the financial sector, a staunch advocate of a "Three Strikes & You're Out" policy for phishing simulations. This strategy is a psychological disaster. It creates a culture of fear, leading to hidden mistakes rather than learning opportunities. According to "The Human Factor," a study that provides a cost-benefit analysis of cybersecurity education, punitive practices like these can actually impede learning and are far from effective in enhancing cybersecurity awareness.

CISO #2: The Overconfident Gambler in Medical Services

Next, I met a CISO from the medical services sector who was all-in on defense-in-depth. His argument? With enough controls, human error becomes irrelevant. This is cybersecurity Russian roulette. No system is foolproof, and this approach exposes the organization to significant risks. The paper "Human factors in cybersecurity" highlights the limitations of such an approach, emphasizing that attitudes towards cybersecurity can significantly impact risky behaviors, meaning that if you don't do any education that you're setting yourself up for a lot of risky behavior from your user population.

CISO #3: The Visionary in Education

Finally, I met a CISO from the education sector who gets it. He's not just ticking boxes; he's building a culture. His organization has some of the lowest phish rates and malware incidents, and it's no accident. Research like "Individual cyber security: Empowering employees to resist spear phishing" supports this approach, showing that empowering employees through education is more effective than punitive measures.

The Brutal Truth: Psychology Matters

If there's one thing these encounters hammered home, it's that understanding psychology isn't optional; it's essential. A balanced approach that blends traditional cybersecurity measures with an understanding of human behavior is the only way forward. The paper "Combining traditional cyber security audit data with psychosocial data" confirms this, showing that a blend of psychosocial data with traditional cybersecurity measures can yield better results.


Here's the bottom line: If you're a CISO and you're not thinking about psychology, you're doing it wrong. Tech defenses are just one piece of the puzzle. The human element can't be ignored, and a balanced, educated approach that prioritizes both is the only way to go.

Call to Action

Want to be more like the Visionary? Ready to shore up your human element and create lasting culture change? Schedule a meeting with me, Joshua Crumbaugh, and let's transform your cybersecurity strategy from the ground up.


  • "The Human Factor: Identifying and Providing a Cost-Benefit Analysis of Cybersecurity Education" Link
  • "Privacy Breach Response—Prevention of Future Breaches" Link
  • "Human factors in cybersecurity" Link
  • "Combining traditional cyber security audit data with psychosocial data" Link
  • "Individual cyber security" Link