Home Cyberpsychology & Technology Digital Literacy and Cognitive Reflectiveness Predict Susceptibility to Online Deception

Digital Literacy and Cognitive Reflectiveness Predict Susceptibility to Online Deception

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Researchers have conducted a groundbreaking study exploring susceptibility to various forms of online deception, including phishing emails, fake news headlines, and scam text messages. This study, published in the journal Human Factors, aimed to determine if the same users are vulnerable to multiple types of online deception and to identify universal predictors of this susceptibility. The findings offer crucial insights for enhancing cybersecurity measures and training interventions.

The primary objective of the study was to investigate whether individuals who fall prey to one form of online deception are also likely to fall for others. Previous theoretical research suggested that the same users might be vulnerable across different types of online deception. However, no prior study had directly compared susceptibility to phishing emails, disinformation, and scam text messages within the same group of users. The study also aimed to identify if there are universal predictors of susceptibility across these different types of online deception.

The researchers recruited 180 participants from the online platform Prolific. The sample included a diverse age range of participants, with equal representation from younger (18–35), middle-aged (36–64), and older (65+) adults. Participants completed an online survey that included demographic questions, the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) to measure impulsivity, and the Digital Literacy Scale (DLS). They were then asked to classify 90 stimuli comprising legitimate and deceptive emails, text messages, and news headlines.

The study revealed that individuals who struggle to discriminate between deceptive and legitimate stimuli in one task are likely to experience similar difficulties across other tasks. Participants’ abilities to classify stimuli varied among the three tasks, with the best performance observed in distinguishing between real and fake news headlines, followed by scam text messages, and then phishing emails.

Interestingly, while lower levels of digital literacy and cognitive reflectiveness predicted poorer discrimination abilities across all three tasks, age did not significantly predict performance. This finding challenges the common belief that older adults are more vulnerable to online deception due to age-related cognitive decline.

Participants had the highest sensitivity in detecting fake news headlines, followed by scam text messages, and the lowest sensitivity in identifying phishing emails. Participants’ response biases and confidence levels varied among the tasks, with the highest confidence observed in the text message task.

There was a significant positive correlation between participants’ ability to discriminate between legitimate and deceptive items across all three tasks. This suggests that vulnerability in one domain is linked to vulnerability in others.

Digital literacy and cognitive reflectiveness were significant predictors of participants’ abilities to detect deception across all tasks. Higher digital literacy and cognitive reflectiveness were associated with better discrimination abilities. Age did not predict performance in any of the tasks, indicating that age-related cognitive decline might not be a significant factor in susceptibility to online deception.

The study’s findings have significant implications for cybersecurity practices and training interventions. Organizations can potentially identify individuals who are broadly vulnerable to online attacks by measuring their digital literacy, cognitive reflectiveness, and performance in one online deception task. Training interventions should focus on improving digital literacy and reducing impulsivity to enhance resilience to various forms of online deception.

The study provides a comprehensive understanding of susceptibility to online deception, highlighting that the same users are likely to fall for multiple forms of deception. Digital literacy and cognitive reflectiveness emerged as universal predictors of vulnerability, while age did not significantly impact susceptibility. These findings underscore the importance of broad, systematic training interventions to mitigate the risks of online deception.

Participants vulnerable to one type of deception are likely vulnerable to others. Digital literacy and cognitive reflectiveness predict susceptibility, and age does not predict susceptibility to online deception. Phishing emails pose the greatest challenge for detection.

Results suggest that the same users are likely to fall for multiple forms of online deception and users who are more impulsive and have low digital literacy may be broadly vulnerable to online deception. There are several limitations to the present study. The headlines in our study were less diverse in content compared to the emails and text messages. More diverse headlines may result in significantly poorer classifications.

Future research should focus on developing more robust stimulus sets that allow for more controlled examinations between different types of deceptive stimuli, in terms of content, length, and complexity. Additionally, our study did not find any age differences, despite past research. It is possible that the older (and younger) adults on Prolific are fundamentally different than the general population. Future research should focus on recruiting a more diverse sample to investigate age differences. Lastly, the prevalence of and order in which stimuli were presented may have influenced the participants’ classifications. Specifically, previous research has suggested that users may be more vulnerable to deceptive stimuli when they are rare.

The study utilised 50% prevalence for deceptive stimuli, similar to other recent research, which may have influenced participants’ classifications. Additionally, all participants classified the emails first, then the text messages and headlines. It is possible that classifying the stimuli in a particular order may have also influenced classifications; participants may have performed poorer in the email task because it was presented first.

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