Online hacking costs the private and corporate sectors more than $575 billion annually. While security agencies seek out “ethical” hackers to help combat such attacks, little is known about the personality traits that lead people to pursue and excel at hacking.
New research shows that a characteristic called systemizing provides insight into what makes and motivates a hacker. Intriguingly, the personality traits are similar to many autistic behaviors and characteristics.
“We found a positive association between an individual’s drive to build and understand systems — called systemizing — and hacking skills and expertise,” said Dr. Elena Rusconi of the Division of Psychology at Abertay University in Dundee, U.K.
“In particular, we found that this drive is positively and specifically correlated with code-breaking performance.”
What is systemizing? Systemizing is the preference to apply systematic reasoning and abstract thought to things or experiences. It is theorized to exist on a continuum with a personality trait called empathizing, a preference for being agreeable and able to empathize with others. The preference for systemizing is frequently associated with autism or Asperger’s, a milder form of autism.
In the study, Rusconi’s group found that volunteer “ethical” hackers performed far above average on a series of code-breaking challenges designed to assess their systemizing skills.
According to a cognitive and behavioral survey, these hackers also self-reported characteristics that indicated a strong tendency towards systemizing.
Because of this preference for systemizing, Rusconi decided to also profile participants for other autistic-like behaviors and skills. Although none were actually autistic, hackers self-reported higher scores for attention to detail, another autism-like trait.
Researchers also found that stronger systemizing scores, but not attention to detail, correlated with more skillful code-breaking. In contrast, participants with higher attention to detail performed better on a detail-oriented task such as X-ray image screening.
These results give insight into the psychology and skill set that might predispose an individual towards a variety of security professions.
Such information could be used to improve training programs, job candidate profiling, and predictions of job performance. Furthermore, the finding that some autism-associated skills can benefit security operations may open new employment opportunities to autistic individuals.
“We are finding evidence that the positive traits of autism can predict better performance in security tasks,” said Rusconi.
“This suggests a new way to inform personnel selection in security jobs and to improve the match between individual predispositions and job assignment.”
According to a National Autistic Society estimate, only 15 percent of autistic individuals have full-time employment, although many are both willing and able to work.
Although it remains to be seen how well autistic people would perform in similar studies, Rusconi’s findings call for further exploration of the potential benefits of security occupations for these individuals, as well as the conditions that would best help them succeed.
The research appears in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.