Security Awareness Content: Challenges of Using Reinforcement

Imagine that you are the head of security awareness at an organization (not a stretch for some) and have been charged with getting people to report issues to the help desk. You decide, in your infinite wisdom, to encourage them to report issues to the help desk by giving them $1 each time they report a valid problem. The week after implementing the new reward program the number of issues reported to the help desk has increased 100 fold. You program is getting great results. Not only are 99% of phishing attacks getting reported but shoulder surfing is down, you know when devices are lost, and compromised computers are being reported to the help desk rather than being discovered by them. Things are coming up roses.

See any problems here?money

Of course you do! The budget for this program is going to be INSANE! No practical business will support paying $1 for each ticket at the help desk for any longer than 6 months- MAX. This leads into the second, and biggest problem with using reinforcement. If the only reason that users are reporting issues is because of a reward, the minute that the reward is removed the desired behavior plummets. Unless you can replace the reward with something of equal subjective value their incentive is gone and the trained behavior is lost.

*Finding something of equal subjective value to cash on a large scale is damn near impossible. I only say ‘damn near’ because I’m sure there is some magical place out there that can do it but I’ve never come across it. *

Finally, lets say that instead of $1 you gave them a free lunch- because your users really like lunch. How long will that be an effective reward? My guess is that after about a month of free lunches have been accrued the value of the reward will go down dramatically and so will your behavior. Suddenly, you have to switch the reward to something else – of equal subjective value- to keep them responding.

Vicious cycle anyone?

How to Use Reinforcement to Your Advantage

As you can see, reinforcement is a tricky thing but when can we use it to change behavior.

Lets go back to the help desk problem. Instead of paying for each help desk ticket, indefinitely, you make it a charity fundraiser for the holiday.

“Every time you call the help desk, $1 will be donated to buy gifts for families in need. Weekly progress will be reported!”

Some of you might look at this and say “even if we had the budget for that, we still have the same problem of removing the reward and loosing the behavior once the fund raiser was over” but consider two very important differences.

1-    The reinforcement has a clearly defined ‘end point’ that has nothing to do with the user, the company, or their behavior but is a product of the reward. The gifts have to be bought at some point otherwise the fundraiser was pointless. Essentially you are isolating the reinforcement contingency and increasing your chances of the behavior persisting after.

-Not to mention periodic fundraisers to increase behavior –if needed- are MUCH more sustainable to the budget than constant reinforcement.

2-    The second and most important is how closely the reinforcement (e.g., $1) and behavior are paired. In our first example the employee saw the DIRECT effect of calling the help desk on their pay check therefore it was very closely paired to their behavior

Just like if Pavlov’s dogs were fed EVERY time the research assistant came in.

The minute that the user realized the reinforcement was removed, the behavior that followed stopped (i.e., calling the help desk).

Back to Pavloc: The dogs would eventually stop salivating once they knew that the assistants were never going to feed them.

In our second example, the users see the money increase but it is NOT directly related to each time they call the help desk. Instead it goes into an anonymous pool that may jump $100 a week even if they just called the help desk once. Since the reinforcement is not closely tied to each behavior they perform, the chances of the behavior persisting after the reinforcement is removed increases significantly.

*For a more detailed look at this process see my previous blog on Pavlov and his dogs.

Based on all of this, be careful when using reinforcement. While it may provide an immediate result, it’s something that needs budget and time to maintain. If used wrong, you will just be setting yourself up for an uphill battle.




behavior designculturelearningmeasurementmetricsmotivationphishingphishing awarenesspsychologysecuritysecurity awarenesstraininguser behavior

One Comment

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Benny T

April 9, 2013 at 11:42 pm

Brilliant reinforcement idea.

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