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Human Brains Are Hardwired To Ignore Web Security Warnings

How often do you completely ignore web security warnings because you're in too much of a rush to access the content that your computer is warning you about? Google recently overhauled their Chrome security warnings, but studies suggest that our brains might be hardwired to ignore these regular threats.

The research says that "habituation" is to blame for the phenomenon. When a person gets used to seeing warnings they no longer read or even really see the alert and bypass it by instinct. A study from Utah's Brigham Young University, in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh and Google, used MRI imaging to show that the visual processing part of the brain stopped analysing the warnings after the first viewing.

"The first time that your brain experiences a stimulus, it devotes attention to it, but then for subsequent exposures, it relies on memory, and the response is far less," Anthony Vance of Brigham Young University told The Guardian. "Some people think that users are lazy and inattentive but this is simply fundamental to our own biology."

The study results were in line with the theory of habituation. It suggests that for example when you walk into your living room you don't notice the paintings on the wall or the color of the sofa. The brain builds a picture of the room from memory allowing you to focus on different changing elements.

This explains why system improvements like the ones to Google Chrome are difficult to implement as the users aren't really seeing the warnings. Even if they do read the warnings, users will prioritise the short term gain -- access to the desired site -- and tend to dismiss the longterm consequences like a virus that could hit tomorrow or even in an hour because there is no immediate visible effect.

Still, there are ways to combat the hard wiring. Google's improvements to Chrome outlined in this presentation convinced nearly double the amount of users to heed warnings, increasing adherence rates from 31 percent to 58 percent. Google used "opinionated design" to reach the improvements. That is, the warnings try to influence the user to make the right choice by highlighting the safe button in a bright color and hiding the ignore button.

Despite this improvement still nearly four in every ten users bypassed the security warnings which is far from ideal. It may be that the only way to safeguard ourselves is to take us out of the decision making process and allow the browsers to decide what we can and cannot access, but this of course would limit our browsing experience.


Photo Credit: Allan Ajifo | Flickr

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