Best Practice v/s FUD

Have you observed how “best practice” recommendations are widely known but not followed as much? While it seems more the case in IT Security, it is observed true in every other sphere as well. For example, dentists repeatedly recommend brush and floss after each meal as best practice, but how many follow this advice? And then there is the clearly posted speed limit on the road, more often than not, motorists are speeding.

Now the downside to non-compliance is well known to all and for the most part well accepted – no real argument. In the dentist example these include social hardships ranging from bad teeth and breath to health issues and the resulting expense. In the speeding example, there is potential physical harm and of course monetary fines. However it would appear that neither the fear of “bad outcomes” nor “monetary fine” spur widespread compliance. Indeed one observes that the persons who do indeed comply, appear to do so because they wish to; the fear or fine factors don’t play a major role for them.

In a recent experiment, people visiting the dentist were divided in two groups. Before the start, each patient was asked to indicate if they classified themselves as “generally listen to the doctors advice”. After the checkup, people from one group were given the advice to brush and floss regularly but then given a “fear” message on the consequences of non-compliance — bad teeth, social ostracism, high cost of dental procedures etc. People from the other group got the same checkup and advice but were given a “positive” message on the benefits of compliance– nice smile, social popularity, less cost etc. A follow up was conducted to determine which of the two approaches was more effective in getting patients to comply.

Those of us in IT Security battling for budget from unresponsive upper management have been conditioned to think that the “fear” message would be more effective … but … surprise, neither approach was more effective than the other in getting patients to comply with “best practice.”  Instead, those who classified themselves as “generally listen to doctors advice” were the one who did comply. The rest were equally impervious to either the negative or positive consequences, while not disputing them.

You could also point to the great reduction in smoking incidence but this best practice has required more than 3 decades of education to achieve the trend and still can’t be stamped out.

Lesson for IT Security — education takes time and behavior modification, even more so.