Fear vs. Anxiety in Information Security: What We Can Do

There are differences between anxiety and fear in the way people experience and react to these conditions. We might find that addressing the fear of information security events is more practical than handling anxiety. It’s worth considering how we might shift people from the state of anxiety to that of fear, so we can ultimately address their concerns.

Anxiety vs. Fear

Lang, Davis and Ohman examined physiological effects of fear and anxiety on humans, finding a number of distinctions. The authors also provided an explanation of how fear is different from anxiety:

“Fear is generally held to be a reaction to an explicit threatening stimulus, with escape or avoidance the outcome of increased cue proximity. Anxiety is usually considered a more general state of distress, more long lasting, prompted by less explicit or more generalized cues.”

In the context of information security, experiencing fear implies being concerned with a specific event, such as a particular threat agent compromising a specific set of data. We have a way of dealing with such concerns through threat modeling, which involves a structured approach to identifying and rating threats.

Dealing with anxiety related to information security is much harder. Anxiety is a reaction to abstract concerns that are harder to identify, and, as the result, harder to address. For instance, a person might be anxious about the company experiencing a data breach.

Handling Anxiety is Harder than Dealing with Fear

Eilam, Izhar and Mort published a paper on behavioral practices associated with threat detection. The wrote:

“An animal that is anxious about the possibility of a nearby predator, might then come face to face with a predator, which will convert the anxiety into a real and perceptible danger that produces a fear response. Alternatively, the anxious animal might not encounter a predator, and the question is then one of when it will calm down and become less anxious. Relief from a state of anxiety is subjective and thus varies among individuals.”

Marketing and persuasion practices in information security often incorporate the principles of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD). FUD isn’t always bad, as Dave Shackleford suggested. The problem is that much of FUD is designed to induce anxiety, rather than fear. There are several categories of FUD tactics, as Mike Rothman outlined; some of them can incorporate fear and thusly persuade people to pay attention to relevant information security threats.

Focus on Fear, Rather Than Anxiety

By focusing on specific threats tied to actual events and meaningful risks, we can focus people’s attention on specific “predators.” We can then consider how to alleviate the associated fears through risk management. Breach and threat reports put out by security vendors (e.g., Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report) make this possible. In contrast, if we focus on inducing the state of anxiety, we might succeed at selling some security products, but we won’t actually address risks in a meaningful manner. It’s possible to react to fear. It’s hard to leave the state of anxiety.

Related: Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Feeling Secure.

Lenny Zeltser


About the Author

Lenny Zeltser is a seasoned business and tech leader with extensive cybersecurity experience. He builds innovative endpoint defense solutions as VP of Products at Minerva Labs. Beforehand, he was responsible for security product management at NCR Corp. Lenny also trains incident response and digital forensics professionals at SANS Institute. An engaging presenter, he speaks at industry events, writes articles and has co-authored books. Lenny has earned the prestigious GIAC Security Expert designation, has an MBA from MIT Sloan and a Computer Science degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

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