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The Anatomy of Social Engineering 2: Evolutionary Triggers

The key subject matter here is how exploiting evolutionary aspects naturally affects humans in terms of manipulative influence and social engineering proper.

Ties to Evolution

Effect of evolutionary 'triggers'

Effect of evolutionary ‘triggers’

So, let’s talk about social engineering and exploiting the human’s mind, because there’re vulnerabilities in a human mind that you may or may not be aware of that we’ve basically evolved with. And even though we’ve grown to be sophisticated like this, we still have vulnerabilities from these days, from essentially the code that was used in the evolutionary process.

Our brains and modern society

Our brains and modern society

Our brains are actually not optimized for modern society (see left-hand image). As you can see in this population graph, basically it wasn’t until 1800 that there was roughly a billion people on this planet. And so, for the millions of years before that the man was on this planet, basically, man existed essentially in small tribal groups. So our brain evolved to be optimized for small tribal groups that were mainly endemic to the African plains, and they would meet maybe 4 to 5 strangers in their entire life. They would probably know 40 to 50 people throughout most of their entire life. They’d live with them, they’d hunt with them, they’d eat with them. It was small, it was tightened.

Evolutionary behavior

Evolutionary behavior

There’s a number of things that the mind evolved to do, and this brings me to biology. These trust relationships that were evolved in the mind also evolved in many aspects of biology. You’ll see symbiotic relationships where one fish guards another and the other fish cleans it (see right-hand image).

And for instance, with the case of the grouper and cleaner fish, the problem that faces the cleaner fish is that the grouper eats fish, especially fish its size. So how does the cleaner fish tell the grouper or make the grouper not eat it? Well, what happened – and I’m sure biologists can tell you more – is that essentially there evolved some sort of trust relationship.

And how the cleaner fish does this is essentially called the quiescence dance. It swims in front of the grouper and does this little dance. The grouper is then rendered into a slack jaw state. It just sits there passively, almost goes unconscious. It’s just some sort of trigger that happens in the grouper’s mind once the quiescence dance is done in front of the grouper. The cleaner fish then goes inside the mouth of the grouper, cleans out, gets its fill on bacteria and food and then leaves. Basically the grouper fish wakes up some time later and has no memory of what just happened, none. So this trust relationship basically evolved through natural evolution and is an instinctive behavior shared on both sides.

Evolutionary trigger exploitation

Evolutionary trigger exploitation

And so, these sort of trust relationships have actually been exploited through mimicry behavior in a number of different animals. There’s a number of different mimicries: batesian mimicry, mullerian mimicry, and aggressive mimicry (see left-hand image), which we’re going to talk about. Batesian mimicry is essentially a prey, say, a fish learns the scare-off tactics and behavior that a predator uses to scare off bigger predators. He then uses those to scare off predators with some degree of success.

Mullerian mimicry is basically groups of poisonous prey collaborating together. Distinct species – they learn because they have a common predator between the two species, or two, or three, or so many. They observe that essentially the predator strays away from something. Say, A and B are poisonous species, and Charlie is a predator. B observes that Charlie backs off from prey A after prey A exhibits some behavior, some scare-off behavior. Prey B then mimics this behavior to some degree of success at scaring off the predator.

So, aggressive mimicry is not for the purpose of scaring off the predator; it’s for the purpose of defeating the predator and eating the predator.

Aggressive mimicry by Sabretooth Blenny

Aggressive mimicry by Sabretooth Blenny

Now, in the case of Sabretooth Blenny, which is the fish on the bottom right (see right-hand image), the Sabretooth Blenny learned the quiescence dance. It is also a fish about the size of a cleaner fish, and it’s a pretty fish – it’s on the top right. That’s a dead one on the bottom right. It’s about as long as your hand to your thumb, and entirely half of it is a jaw bone. What it does is it swims in front of the grouper fish, does the quiescence dance. The grouper just slumps into a slack jaw state, and the Sabretooth Blenny goes in and just eats the inside of the mouth, gets its fill, can’t eat the whole grouper inside out, and then swims out. The grouper wakes up and has no idea what just happened, it just hurts like it’s a hangover, but from the mouth.

So, Sabretooth Blenny have actually evolved over the years to basically follow around the herd of grouper and exploit them. They don’t eat enough in any one instance to do a significant amount of damage, to cause it to die. They basically farm what they need at the time, but just enough to keep it alive; very parasitic and very interesting. And it’s very interesting because it exploits the evolutionary trigger in the grouper’s mind.

Persuasion: Exploiting Evolutionary Triggers

Compliance study

Compliance study

So, let’s delve into exploiting evolutionary triggers in human mind. I am going to start with a Harvard study that was done in the 70s on compliance (see right-hand image). The study of compliance has basically revolved on what is the absolute minimum we need to do or say in order to get someone to do us a favor.

For the test in this study, it was basically in the Harvard library and they had grad students doing the test, and they would approach people in the library who were already using a copier machine. The goal was to get them to stop and let them use the copier machine instead, to basically interrupt them. And so, the goal is to find what is a minimum needed to say in order to get them to comply with their request of: “Hey, can I make copies?” The control group is: “Hi, I have 5 pages, can I use the copier?” That’s it, no reasons given. And so, they would experiment here with basically: “Can I use the copier because of X?” then “Can I use the copier because of Y?” and so on.

Preliminary results

Preliminary results

The control group: “I have 5 pages, can I use the copier” had 64% compliance, no reason given. So, hundreds of students were interrupted to see if they could use the copier instead, and 64% of them said: “Sure”. That’s not been done during finals week or midterms week, so I don’t know.

Trial 1 was: “Hi, I have 5 pages, can I use the copier because I am in a hurry?” This had 94% compliance, and that’s a pretty good reason: anybody can be sympathetic to that; you’re in a rush, you need to get somewhere, we’ve all been there. So, 94% of people would comply with this. So they basically have a super high success rate compared to no reason given. Then they had this range that they wanted to experiment with.

Further questions to answer

Further questions to answer

Specifically what they were trying to experiment with is: “Can we vary the lameness of our reason and explore how that affects the compliance rate range?” So they explored with more and more increasingly lame reasons, less compelling reasons (see right-hand image). And the results still yielded relatively high compliance.

Final trial

Final trial

And eventually they came down to their final trial (see left-hand image), in which just said: “We need to stop and look at what’s going on here, this is something amazing”. Because the trial was: “Hi, I have 5 pages, can I use the copier because I need to make copies?” Clearly, that is logically equivalent to “Hi, I have 5 pages, can I use the copier?” It’s completely specious reasoning, and they got 93% compliance, 1% less than: “I need to use it because I’m in a hurry”.

The magic word 'because'

The magic word ‘because’

And this was baffling. We’re at Harvard, clearly these people aren’t idiots, what is going on? At the end of the study they effectively discovered that the magic word here is “because” (see right-hand image). The word “because” exploits this evolutionary trigger in our brain. Our brain is optimized for small tribal life, and it’s just like the Sabretooth Blenny: whatever follows doesn’t really matter. The simple existence of the word “because” statistically increases the chance of you complying with that request.

Obviously it’s not going to work every time, because we’re talking about statistics. In small tribal life there would be a few liars, and if they were found out they would often get exiled or shamed in some way. And so, given that we’ve basically only had 2000 years since civilization has been established and everything has changed, we still have millions of years of this code reuse from the evolutionary process in our DNA.
 

Read previous: The Anatomy of Social Engineering

Read next: The Anatomy of Social Engineering 3: Reciprocity and Consistency Quirks

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